Regular readers find in me a relentless critic of this Government’s efforts to control Covid-19, because of its scant regard for the inviolability of human relationships.
I do not find it acceptable to restrict non-cohabiting couples from pursuing their relationships, even in extremis, because that is a flagrant abuse of human rights.
Back in June, this Government decided belatedly to protect a subset of these couples – those fortunate enough to qualify as a support bubble – while continuing to deny such protection to others.
Then in September, and even more belatedly, it briefly rectified matters by issuing guidance that all those in an ‘established relationship’ need no longer observe social distancing.
But now, no more than a month later, it has reverted to its former position, removing this right from those living in a high (tier 2) or very high (tier 3) area, according to its latest regional restrictions.
So, at present, contact for those in ‘established relationships’ is forbidden to over half the population of England, but acceptable to those still in medium (tier 1) areas. This is unfair, invidious and unreasonable.
It is once again a criminal offence for certain couples – those in tier 2 and tier 3 areas in established relationships but not part of a support bubble – to meet indoors.
At no point in this sorry saga has the Government set out any evidence that allowing all established relationships to flourish would significantly increase household transmission.
Having once responded to the argument that the emotional and mental health consequences of enforced separation more than outweigh the benefits of denying contact, it has once again reversed that position.
Even before it relaxed its prohibition, the anecdotal evidence suggested that most couples were turning a blind eye to Government interference. Now it has executed this screeching U-turn, I anticipate zero tolerance of its latest evidence-free injunction.
This Government can ill-afford to alienate voters still further: it desperately needs the widest possible public support if it is to avoid complete disaster.
It can best secure that support by consistently adopting an evidenced, equitable, compassionate approach that supports human relationships rather than trampling all over them.
I first raised this issue in Household Bubbles: Another COVID-19 failure by the UK Government? (9 June), which reviewed the evidence base supporting the use of household bubbles and urged the Government to deploy them immediately for the benefit of all non-cohabiting couples.
Support bubbles were introduced the very next day, but couples could only make use of them if one or both were fortunate enough to form a single-adult household.
That excluded all those couples in which both partners were: living with one or more adult children, or with a widowed parent; caring for an elderly or disabled relative; in a multi-generational household; part of a shared tenancy; or who take lodgers.
In Support Bubbles and Extended Households: A Dog’s Breakfast? (15 August), I highlighted this injustice, estimating that at least half of all non-cohabiting couples – some two million people – would not qualify.
I set out the disparities between the legislation and guidance for each of the four home countries, showing how Scotland and Wales were far more generous in this respect than England and Northern Ireland. I could find no published evidence to support these disparities.
Finally, in It’s an ill wind (10 September), I congratulated the Government on paragraph 2.13 of its new social distancing guidance, published the day before:
‘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.’
This meant that, for the first time, the resumption of an ‘established relationship’ was no longer conditional on being able to form a support bubble.
(I have placed the term ‘established relationships’ in single quotation marks throughout, because the Government has never bothered to define it.)
And, whereas only one member of a household containing two or more adults could avail themselves of a support bubble, now all household members were free to resume their ‘established relationships’.
A week later I added a postscript to this post, noting that, although support bubbles were carried across into new local lockdown guidance, protection for ‘established relationships’ was not. Consequently, many people were granted this freedom only to have it removed again almost immediately.
Anticipating the imposition of the new three-tier regional restrictions I insisted:
‘It must be a matter of principle that none of these localised restrictions should obstruct ‘established relationships’, regardless of their [the restrictions’] duration.’
Sadly that principle was ignored.
The three-tier system is introduced
Prime Minister Johnson announced the new three-tier methodology on Monday 12 October.
His Commons Statement was ambiguously worded, and it seemed at first that support bubbles would no longer be protected for those in tiers 2 and 3:
‘The “high” alert level reflects the interventions in many local areas at the moment.
This primarily aims to reduce household to household transmission, by preventing all mixing between different households or support bubbles indoors…’
Like many others, I initially understood this to mean that the Government was prohibiting those in support bubbles from mixing indoors. It would have been better to have said ‘preventing all mixing between different households or different support bubbles indoors’.
The same faulty construction was used again in the later televised statement. But, fortunately, the press release was clearer, explaining that, under tier 2:
‘People must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place’
Whereas, under tier 3:
‘People must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor or outdoor setting, whether at home or in a public space…‘
with the exception of certain open public spaces such as parks or beaches.
The secondary legislation was published shortly before it came into force on Saturday 17 October. There is separate legislation for each tier.
Each set of regulations contains an identical definition of ‘linked households’ – for some reason the law could not cope with the term ‘support bubbles’ – which has changed slightly since I last dissected it in August.
The date when the children in a household are deemed not yet adult remains frozen at 12 June, when this legislation was first enacted. So those who were 18 on, say, 1 July, continue to qualify as children. It follows that support bubbles do not disintegrate when children in the single adult household subsequently attain adulthood.
This is in itself problematic as households containing 18 year-olds are treated differently according to when their birthdays fall. Should these regulations continue in force unchanged beyond 12 June 2020, nineteen year-olds will also be treated invidiously.
The links between the two households must still be exclusive but, whereas previously any link with another household was prohibited, this now applies only to links ‘for the purpose of these Regulations or any other regulations made under part 2 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984’. A later sub-paragraph also excludes ‘informal childcare’ from this restriction.
It remains the case that there is no limit on the number of adults or children in the second household, but all the adults within it must agree to the formation of the link. Hence, if two adults each want to form a different support bubble, they must decide between them which will take effect.
As I pointed out previously, the absence of a numerical restriction on the second household causes much rough justice.
A large multi-generational household of, say, 12 people can link with another household containing a single parent and four non-adult children, so bringing 17 different people into close contact, with all that entails for wider transmission of the virus. On the other hand, two households each containing only two adults may not form a support bubble, despite the risk of transmission arguably being much lower (other things remaining equal).
It also remains the case that, if the number of adults in the single adult household increases – other than by virtue of those aged under 18 on 12 June growing older – the support bubble breaks down. This acts as a disincentive to such households to take in a newly-widowed parent, or a newly-unemployed adult child, for example.
Further, it remains the case that, if a support bubble breaks down, for whatever reason, neither household may form a new support bubble to replace it. So, going back to the situation in which two adults each want to form a different support bubble, the second adult will not get his chance if the first adult’s bubble disintegrates.
The associated guidance (last updated on 14 September) adds that, with effect from that date, no-one is allowed to change to a different support bubble.
The guidance also recommends that bubbles should be formed ‘with a household that lives locally wherever possible’, though it seems likely that most decisions will depend on the nature of the relationship, rather than geographical factors. Many of those living in tier 1 areas will have formed support bubbles with people now in tier 2 or tier 3 areas.
If they are observed and enforced, these provisions, taken together, will likely cause the total number of support bubbles to fall over time. Unless the number falling foul of these provisions is exceeded by the number of households newly achieving ‘single adult status’, most likely as a consequence of death, separation or divorce.
They, of course, must only choose a partner household not previously part of another, different support bubble, so that choice will increasingly become more constrained.
These restrictions are a curious mixture of prescription and liberality, and have never been justified by the Government.
I have quoted, above, the entirety of the Government’s guidance on ‘established relationships’ since that provision was introduced.
In respect of indoor gatherings, the new secondary legislation sets out 17 exceptions under tier 2 arrangements and 14 exceptions under tier 3 arrangements, but none of them provides for ‘established relationships’.
Protests, sports (elite and otherwise) and Remembrance Sunday are all catered for, but there is nothing to support the continuation of relationships not caught by the ‘linked households’ provisions. I am not the first to point out that this Government has its priorities all wrong.
The latest guidance is also confusing. There is social distancing guidance (last updated on 7 October) which says:
‘You do not need to socially distance from anyone in your household, meaning the people you live with. You also do not need to socially distance from anyone in your legally-permitted support bubble if you are in one, or someone you’re in an established relationship with. If in the early stages of a relationship, you should take particular care to follow the guidance on social distancing.’
But this then cross-refers to guidance on each of the tiers.
The guidance for tier 1 (published on 12 October) doesn’t mention provision for ‘established relationships’, even though it applies.
Similarly, the guidance for tier 2 and tier 3 (also published on 12 October) doesn’t state that those in ‘established relationships’ can no longer meet except under the aegis of a support bubble, even though that is the case.
One might be forgiven for puzzlement.
This stems from a question posed at the Lobby Briefing on Friday 16 October. This is the daily opportunity for journalists to pose questions to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, his answers often finding their way into print articles later that day.
Here is the Mail’s version of the hapless spokesman’s hopeless response:
‘Asked if couples living apart in tier two areas can see each other indoors, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘The rules on household mixing in tier two I think set out that you should mix with your own household only unless you have formed a support bubble and that obviously does apply to some couples.’
Asked if that meant that couples who do not live together in hotspot areas will now face months of not being allowed to meet indoors, the spokesman said: ‘I would put it in a different way which is what the rules set out is that there shouldn’t be mixing between different households indoors but as I said there are exemptions to that with support bubbles and in a number of cases support bubbles will involve couples who live apart.’
Asked why there is not an ‘established relationship’ exemption built into the tier system, the spokesman said: ‘Because the purpose of the measures that we have put in place is to break the chain of transmission in between households and the scientific advice is that there is greater transmission of the virus indoors.’
There is no substance to this pathetic defence of what is, clearly, a completely indefensible position.
Where does that leave us?
In short, if you fall within tier 2 (high) or tier 3 (very high) and you are a non-cohabiting couple or otherwise in an ‘established relationship’, however defined, you can only circumvent social distancing by forming a support bubble.
If you are ineligible for a support bubble, it’s just hard luck.
However, if you fall within tier 1 (medium) then, even if you can’t form a support bubble, you don’t need to socially distance if you judge yourself part of an ‘established relationship’.
If one of you is caught by tier 1 provisions and the other by tier 2 or tier 3, a support bubble is again your only hope. And you can’t escape the more severe tier 2 or tier 3 restrictions by travelling to a tier 1 area to see your other half.
If you are presently in a tier 1 area and enjoying the freedom to function normally within an ‘established relationship’, you will forfeit that freedom if you are unfortunate enough to find your area promoted to tier 2. That is what happened to the entire population of London on Saturday 17 October.
Over half of the population of England – more than 28 million people – is already subject to tier 2 or tier 3 rules, so the freedom granted to those in ‘established relationships’ has already become a minority entitlement.
Meanwhile, although restrictions have also been tightened in Scotland, all non-cohabiting couples there remain exempt from social distancing. There is still no evidential basis for this distinction between England and Scotland.
This Government tries to forge a middle way between the ‘hawks’, anxious to protect the economy and the ‘doves’, anxious to protect the vulnerable.
The ‘hawks’ prioritise employment and national economic prosperity over human relationships; the ‘doves’ favour additional restrictions to minimise the infection rate. Neither is too much bothered about the needs of non-cohabiting couples. For both, they are, in effect, acceptable collateral damage.
So this flagrant infringement of human rights is perpetuated, largely unchallenged. The unfairness built into the distinction between tier 1 on one hand and tiers 2 and 3 on the other is further compounded by a ‘postcode lottery’, because there are no published, specific, measurable criteria to determine when an area should enter or exit each tier. Some areas with high infection rates have been treated more leniently than others.
Designation within tier 2 must be reviewed every 14 days; designation within tier 3 every 28 days. These decisions are informed by the deliberations of the overly secretive Joint Biosecurity Centre.
The Government says ‘it will follow a transparent approach to the assessments and analysis it undertakes’ but none has been published to date. The JBC reports to the deeply unimpressive Baroness Dido Harding.
- There is no published evidence to suggest that enabling all non-cohabiting couples to continue their relationships would significantly increase household transmission, let alone threaten containment of the virus.
- There is no published evidence that the costs of this policy – including (but not confined to) the impact on physical, mental and emotional health – have been calculated and weighed against the benefits.
- There is no obvious reason why England should not follow Scotland’s lead.
Recent research (Smith et al 2020) suggests that a mere 18.2% of people in the UK are self-isolating when they develop COVID-19 symptoms.
I strongly suspect that compliance with these far more tenuous rules amongst non-cohabiting couples will already be far lower than that.
Why has it been necessary to alienate this constituency? Why must non-cohabiting couples suffer when those who are cohabiting don’t? And why bother to flog the dead horse of an unenforceable restriction?
I fear this sorry excuse for a Government is now wedded to Covidiocy.
Update: December 2020
The English Government continues to behave idiotically.
From 9 September until 5 November, Government guidance on social distancing made it clear that, in addition to the exemption of support bubbles:
‘…You do not need to socially distance from someone you’re in an established relationship with.’
But, with the advent of national lockdown 2 on 5 November, although support bubbles continued to be exempted:
‘From 5 November, you must not meet socially indoors with family or friends unless they are part of your household, meaning the people you live with or your support bubble.
This includes anyone you are in an established relationship with but do not live with – unless they are in your support bubble. Couples that do not live together and are not in a support bubble with each other can continue to see each other outdoors.’
Support for the continuation of all established relationships, regardless of household size, lasted precisely 57 days.
When the social distancing guidance was updated on 4 December, all reference to established relationships had been dropped.
Everyone is now told to stay at least two metres apart from those they don’t live with or are in a support bubble with, and those in tiers 2 and 3 are not permitted to socialise indoors with anyone other than their household or support bubble.
It is, however, possible to form a Christmas bubble with your partner from 23 to 27 December inclusive, though even then you are advised to:
‘…keep socially distanced from anybody you do not live with as much as possible’.
and the embargo on your relationship resumes on 28 December, regardless of your tier.
Meanwhile, the guidance on support bubbles was altered marginally to coincide with the end of the second national lockdown on 2 December.
It is now possible to form a support bubble if you are:
‘…the only adult in a household who does not need continuous care as a result of a disability’
or a child aged 16 or over living alone or with other children, without any adults.
There are a couple of other new provisions with even less scope than these, which are unlikely to extend eligibility by more than a few thousand.
You may also now change your support bubble, provided that the previous bubble has been treated as a separate household for at least 14 days.
Unsurprisingly, there was no reference whatsoever to the negative impact of these restrictions in the Government’s Analysis of the health, economic and social effects of COVID-19 and the approach to tiering which was widely regarded as both cursory and derisory.
Secretary of State for Health Hancock was challenged on the disappearance of the ‘established relationships’ provision at his press conference on 30 November (at 12m 40s) and caused great confusion by saying ‘we have made specific provision’ when of course they hadn’t.
Meanwhile, outside of England:
- In Wales since 9 November it has been possible to form an exclusive extended household with one other household, and there is no limit on the size of either household.
- In Scotland, even at COVID protection level 4, two adults in a relationship who do not live together they can agree to form an ‘extended household’ together with any children they live with.
- In Northern Ireland, two households of any size may form a bubble (though indoor meetings are restricted to a maximum of 10 participants).
Needless to say, there is precisely zero evidence why it is only in England that non-cohabiting couples who live in the wrong type of households must be prevented from meeting indoors.
This helps to explain why criticism of the Government’s management of the pandemic is increasingly widespread.
And why few if any non-cohabiting couples will still be observing its unfair, un-evidenced and inept restrictions on their relationships.