As lockdown easing measures are introduced across the UK with the opening of non-essential shops, the rules on how and when we’ll get to see our loved ones again are still frustratingly unclear.
The research is unequivocal: in life, people make us happy and healthy. Even major wellbeing players such as money, job satisfaction and staying fit are blown out of the water by the sheer feel-good factor of the connections we build around us.
One longitudinal study on the topic by Harvard researchers covering almost 80 years of data found that close relationships actively protect us from life’s difficulties and are better predictors of a happy life than IQ, social class or even genes.
On the flip side, if we lack these strong ties, it has a similar effect on our health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Our loved ones aren’t just nice to have: they are crucial to how we experience life.
Of course, protecting those precious relationships (along with the NHS and society overall) is exactly the reason why we’ve been staying at home over the course of the past 11 weeks.
But now the UK government is looking to ease lockdown measures with the opening up of the retail sector, how and when we can next see our friends and family is an area that remains frustratingly vague.
Over the course of the next few weeks, it looks likely that we’ll be able to visit the likes of John Lewis, Burger King, local car showrooms, electrical stores and more. That’s all well and good: businesses and livelihoods depend on them getting back to normal (albeit a new normal). But the exact rules around who we’ll visit these with are still staggeringly unclear.
Some people took this as their cue to flout the stay-at-home rule entirely, and rock merrily on down to the nearest beach or light up a group barbeque. But for the rest of us trying to play by the rules, a sense of almost palpable uncertainty remains.
If we can see our mum, why not our dad – assuming both come from the same household anyway? If we are mingling with a number of people outdoors at a garden centre or a market, what’s the difference in having a few friends we know in the mix? If we have a birthday coming up in the next few weeks, can we assume a picnic in the park with four socially distancing mates is off-limits?
In other countries, lockdown easing measures for businesses and schools have generally gone hand-in-hand with those for social meet-ups.
In France for example, gatherings of fewer than 10 people have been permitted while Italians are able to visit relatives in small numbers. In more cautious Germany, meanwhile, members of two different households are allowed to meet with one another.
It goes without saying that each country has suffered in a different way, and there’s no playbook for a thunderbolt like coronavirus.
But at present, the guidance for seeing loved ones in the UK seems to have hit a backburner next to the more urgent business of getting the economy up and running.
That is important, yes, but the ties that bind us are equally so. It’s short-sighted to assume that one operates without the other. After all, we can hardly rejoice about being able to browse our local gift shop while the far more profound question of when we can see more than one of our loved ones at once (and without feeling vaguely stressed) hangs in the balance.
People need face-to-face human connection and interaction: we thrive on it. No amount of drunken Zoom calls or community rallying can equal that real-life spark. And the longer lockdown goes on for, the lonelier and more disjointed many of us – especially those living alone – will feel.
There are rumours that we’ll be allowed to mingle in “social bubbles” of up to 10 people at garden parties, barbeques or similar outdoor gatherings by the end of June.
But in the meantime, we’ll have to stick to the arbitrary one-person-from-another-household decree; while all around us, others appear to do whatever they damn well feel like (especially if they play the family card, à la Dom Cummings).
We’ve been talking a lot recently about when we might next go to the cinema or book an international holiday or visit a salon for a haircut.
But seeing our loved ones is no such luxury; it’s an essential part of life. It’s also logistically much simpler to allow than these other perks if we all remain outdoors and at a social distance.
The social connections we have in life shouldn’t feel like an afterthought. Instead, they’re our lifeblood: the very thing that helps keep the world on its feet and running in the way that it does.
And it’s not like we’re talking about holding huge house parties, either. It would just help if we had more than a glimmer of insight as to when we may see the handful of people that matter to us the most.
So rather than let this issue languish in a no-man’s land of muddled guidance, we should give it the priority it deserves. We’ll all be happier for it.