An open letter to the First Minister: Please give us a decision on extended households
Dear First Minister,
I have welcomed and appreciated the carefulness and cautiousness with which you have considered easing lockdown restrictions, and I have trusted that you will weigh risk and benefit, and consider human need. By giving us all a date for the easing of travel restrictions, you have enabled us to comply with that ‘one more lap’, because most of us can defer a need if we know it will be met.
But you have provided no such date for when extended households might be allowed, or a date for when you might reach a decision about it. The consequence for me – and no doubt for thousands of people living alone – has been despair.
It may be hard for those who live with someone else to understand the very different effect of lockdown on those who live alone. For some, the urgency of extended households is about the need for affection, care or comfort; for others it will be sex; for others again it will be simple human proximity. Many people will have emphasised the difficulty of loneliness and feelings of isolation. But what is shared by all of us who live alone is the physical and cognitive impact of having no proximity to or contact with another human being for a quarter of a year.
Under normal circumstances, most of us are entirely unaware of the wellbeing effects of passing a friend a cup of tea, of cooking and eating a meal with a partner, of making way for someone to get past in the kitchen, or just feeling the living breathing warmth of a human being nearby. Undoubtedly many of those living with others will be aggravated by the unremitting proximity and contact of partners, children, parents or housemates. But to be without any such contact, proximity or physical and chemical responsiveness to other humans week after week, month after month, results in a form of sensory deprivation.
For me, and probably for many others, one cumulative effect of this sensory deprivation is a kind of proximity numbness, agitation and loss of sensitivity. I can no longer clearly sense where my body begins and ends; I am beginning to misjudge distance, to knock into furniture, to lose my balance, and drop things.
The cognitive effect is more frightening: it’s a kind of dullness, as though thought processes have started to shut down.
Others will experience these effects differently, and to a greater or lesser extent. Some people will counteract them with an increasing reliance on stimulants, or on physically extreme behaviours that risk self-harm. Some will try to numb the agitation. All the attendant health risks also increase.
But there is also a real social risk to continued isolation. As we reach our capacity to tolerate these effects, more and more of us will find ourselves unable to go on complying with the rules.
If you permit us to form extended households, you will be able to measure the impact of the change on the spread of the virus; you can assess risk, and make any necessary adjustments to restrictions. If you do not permit extended households, more and more people will seek physical contact and proximity with others in ways that you will neither be able to measure, control or adjust.
Please, therefore, don’t put off a decision on extended households till the next review, or some unspecified time in the future. Please tell us, as a matter of urgency, when you will make a decision, and when it will be implemented.
Without that, you aren’t asking us to do one more lap. Instead you are asking us to face coping indefinitely with frightening physical and cognitive change. It will prove harder and harder to keep faith, and the consequences of that will affect everybody.