By Emma Hogan in THE TIMES, 15 October 2020
It all feels drearily familiar. From next Monday, in Italy, private parties of more than ten people are likely to be banned. Tougher restrictions are being mooted elsewhere. At home, the stand-off between Boris Johnson and his scientific advisers over a “circuit-breaker” lockdown is eerily reminiscent of March, when it was still novel to see scientists on the telly, when lavatory rolls were in ample supply and before government sloganeering descended into the absurd postmodernism of: “Hands. Face. Space.”
I’m not a complete lockdown sceptic. You won’t find me suggesting that my single friends join Toby Young’s dating site “Love in a Covid Climate” for those who won’t snog anyone who thinks being cautious over a novel virus might be a good idea.
But when Chris Whitty said this week that the approach to Covid-19 was about balancing two harms — “a harm for society and the economy on the one hand, and a harm for health on the other hand” — I felt something was missing in the debate over a second national lockdown.
In the first phase of battling this virus in the spring it was natural that the emphasis was on saving lives from Covid-19 at all costs. In the second phase, however, we need to be more open about the trade-offs. Mental health, and in particular loneliness, needs to be part of the equation too.
On the face of it, it’s harder to measure the impact of loneliness than it is to watch the number of Covid cases rise or the unemployment rate tick up. Yet a growing body of research suggests that loneliness — and its flipside, how many friends you have and the quality of those friendships — affects wellbeing and even our risk of dying.
Most humans need physical touch, moments of tangible affection that cannot be recreated through Zoom. According to Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, the positive effects of friendship can even be traced in female baboons: those who have more grooming partners have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, more offspring and live for longer.
Countless surveys have shown what many of us know: that the pandemic has already worsened people’s mental health. Women and working mothers are particularly likely to say they are finding it hard to stay positive. Young people, between 18 and 24 years old, are also more likely to say that they are finding it tough.
Studies from earlier viral outbreaks, such as Sars or H1N1, suggest that, in some cases, having been quarantined leads to post-traumatic stress symptoms.
Lockdown in the spring was not traumatic for me. I did not lose my job; I was not put on furlough. The most vulnerable member of my family, currently in palliative care, was hospitalised twice yet, miraculously, did not catch the virus. I live by a large patch of greenery in London which I could get out on most days. But even so, as someone who lives by myself, I found it terribly hard at various points, as the time since I’d seen my loved ones or friends in person stretched from days, to weeks, to months. Their pixelated faces were a comfort but no replacement for the real thing.
If Boris Johnson capitulates to a strict “circuit-breaker” lockdown, he and his government need to remember that people live in other ways than just the standard family unit. Much of the evidence suggests that the main place for transmission is households. People living alone are much less likely to be vectors of the disease. In the event of a second lockdown they should be granted much greater freedom because of the increased strain on their mental health.
New Zealand introduced support bubbles for people who lived alone from the beginning, not just after the restrictions started to be loosened, as we did in Britain. So far, the bubble structure has remained part of the government’s plans: it should stay that way.
Second, look to Sweden but not for the reasons that anti-lockdowners cite. A colleague of mine recently returned from Stockholm. Like others, she remarked on how much more relaxed it felt over there compared with Britain and how strange it was to see people without masks. But what struck me most is that their quarantine period is much shorter than those in force in the rest of the world: seven days, and only if you live with someone who has tested positive. Partly this is because people are less infectious in the second week but it’s also designed to limit the negative effects of quarantine. Isolation is rightly seen as something to be avoided as much as possible.
Of course, it would help if we had a better track-and-trace system. But unlike in March, we now have a better sense of the virus. We have the Nightingale hospitals. It’s unlikely that a “circuit-breaker” lockdown, even if it were fully adhered to, would be a one-off: it would come and go, and people would ricochet between isolation and brief moments of semi-normality.
As trust in government continues to diminish and as infection rates climb, morale is going to fall further. Loneliness, in turn, has long-term health effects. And this time, spring is not just around the corner.
Emma Hogan writes for The Economist