It’s an ill wind…

(Sorry, but this wasn’t the end, merely a brief period of respite from Government Covidiocy. For the next episode in this sorry saga, read: Idiot Wind: A screeching U-turn on relationships under COVID-19, published in October 2020 with an update in December 2020.)

…that blows nobody any good.

I hope this post will mark the end of a campaign against UK Government Covid-19 social distancing measures that obstruct relationships between non-cohabiting partners.

On Wednesday 9 September, the UK Government introduced new social distancing guidance for England that, with effect from Monday 14 September, made it a criminal offence for groups of more than six people to meet together socially, indoors or outdoors, unless part of a single household or support bubble, or in certain other defined circumstances.

But, simultaneously, it added a new paragraph to a parallel guidance document: Coronavirus outbreak FAQs: what you can and can’t do that very quietly exempted from social distancing all those in ‘an established relationship’:

2.13 Can I see my partner / boyfriend / girlfriend if I do not live with them? Do we have to socially distance?

Yes. People in an established relationship do not need to socially distance. If in the early stages of a relationship, you should take particular care to follow the guidance on social distancing. If you intend to have close contact with someone, you should discuss how you can help to prevent risks of transmission as a couple, for example, by ensuring you are both avoiding close contact with people you do not live with.’

Leaving aside the awkwardness of expression – the answer ‘yes’ applies to the first question but not to the second – this is hugely welcome news.

It is clear that all non-cohabiting partners and indeed all those who judge themselves in an established relationship (an entirely subjective term) may now resume physical intimacy.

Or, more likely, they now have the Government’s blessing to do so, having ignored its entirely unfair and unethical efforts to restrain them!

There is also some attempt to explain that those ‘in the early stages of a relationship’ should practise social distancing and that, before forming an ‘established relationship’, couples should discuss how they may minimise the risk to others.

This rectifies a situation in which non-cohabiting couples living in England were initially advised against physical intimacy (which was for a short period criminalised), only for it later to be permitted, but only for those fortunate enough to be able to form a support bubble, so substituting one injustice for another.

One day after the outset of lockdown, on 24 March, non-cohabiting couples were advised (by the infamous Dr Harries) to move in together or else remain two metres apart at all times for the foreseeable future.

With effect from 1 June 2020, regulations even made it illegal for two partners not living in the same household to be indoors together.

My post on Household Bubbles, published on 9 June, pleaded with the Government to deploy them to enable all non-cohabiting couples to resume their relationships.

The very next day the Government introduced Support Bubbles, which made partial amends, but only in cases where one of the two partners lived in a single adult household, either alone or with non-adult children.

My post on Support Bubbles and Extended Households, published on 15 August, highlighted the injustice of this, comparing the detailed guidance issued by each of the four home countries.

It found that, by virtue of their Extended Households policies, Scotland and Wales were significantly more permissive than England and Northern Ireland, effectively enabling all non-cohabiting partners to reunite. Indeed, the Scottish guidance makes this explicit.

That second post also analysed all relevant SAGE papers then in the public domain, detecting in them the over-cautious, ‘can’t do’ attitude to support bubbles that prevails in England to this day.

I urged all four governments to explain why it was necessary to have four different sets of guidance, and to supply the epidemiological evidence justifying the distinctions between them.

In the absence of that evidence, I called on them to encourage all non-cohabiting partners fully to resume their relationships.

This new guidance rectifies the position in England, since it no longer makes the resumption of relationships conditional on being within a support bubble.

It is no longer necessary for one partner to be in a single adult household. Nor does it restrict those in a larger household to a single relationship.

So, for example, if I live in a three-person household with my adult son and daughter, all three of us may now conduct our established relationships regardless of social distancing. Under the support bubble arrangements, only one of us could have done so.

That is just how it should be – and how it should remain.

Postscript

Unfortunately it seems that, while subsequent rules imposing local lockdowns have exempted support bubbles from the restrictions on inter-household meetings, ‘established relationships’ have not been similarly exempted.

So those under local lockdown who are unfortunate enough not to qualify for a support bubble have had this new freedom granted, only to see it almost immediately removed.

Moreover, in some areas, it is now once again illegal for these couples to meet inside.

This is completely indefensible, but the rules on social interaction – especially the intersection between national and local guidance – are now so convoluted that the Government itself cannot understand them.

There is the prospect, in fairly short order, of a three-level traffic light system that should simplify matters. But this still leaves open the prospect of ‘red’ level interventions being customised to local circumstances.

It must be a matter of principle that none of these localised restrictions should obstruct ‘established relationships’, regardless of their duration.

For the time being though, we are left with a situation of ever-increasing complexity – a bewildering combination of binding regulations and non-statutory guidance, all of it published at the last minute.

If the Government believes that we – the gullible public – should forgive them when they make mistakes over its interpretation, then the reverse is also true.

But most non-cohabiting couples will simply turn a blind eye, just as they have done since Harries made her misguided intervention.

.

TD

September 2020

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