Social Distancing: How Far? How Long For?

Social Distancing: How Far? How Long For?

Screenshot BBC News

Time to relax the rules?

Isolation, especially when imposed rather than chosen, is hard. No wonder solitary confinement is a punishment. Periods of quiet, retreat, solitariness are valuable as a contrast to life’s normal noisy busyness. Above all, they are chosen and can be broken at will, our will. Humans crave and seek intimacy and closeness and communal activities. Socialisation and socialising – in their widest sense – are necessary for the sound development of the child and joy as an adult. The support and comfort of friends and family during times of trouble, the kindness of strangers, the sharing and mutual enjoyment of – and participation in – activities, celebrations and remembrances, being with others, the mixing, the buzz, the conversation, the joint creation of something by a group, by an “us”, are what all human societies have done or tried to do, no matter what the obstacles. Not all of this has been in the flesh. But most of it – and not simply because the technology was previously unavailable. There is something special, something necessary, something real about being with other people, about touch and looks and sound (and yes, smell, too) and the emotions created by physical closeness. Human communication is so much more than instructions or words mediated via screen or page.

So necessary is this to our sense of what it means to be human, that we have viewed with horror those trying to stop this. Usually it’s been done for ideological reasons or to protect people’s souls (think of Cromwell closing inns, theatres, banning sport, Christmas and carol-singing). Only relatively rarely has it been done to protect health. When illnesses struck, it was people’s fears – more than rulers’ orders – which stopped normal activities. Quarantine, plague hospitals, the shunning or expulsion of the sick or those believed to be carriers were the usual responses to epidemics. But not all infectious and fatal diseases have elicited this response: mankind lived with smallpox and TB. The latter is spread through close personal contact: coughing, sneezing, singing, talking, laughing, something known long before a cure. It was endemic in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries: London was Europe’s TB capital. Consumptives were treated as best they could be; the conditions in which TB thrived were – eventually – addressed. But society did not close theatres or choirs or inns or stop poets travelling or people meeting or close the venues where this happened. We still don’t, despite a death rate of 15%: in 2018 1.5 million people worldwide died from TB out of 10 million catching it.

Perhaps one change is that we have become much less willing to live with such risks or to see people die who might be saved were we to forego our pleasures for a while. It is admirably altruistic. Or perhaps we have been lulled into believing that life can be made safe. Or maybe it is simply because this virus has come upon us so fast, been so overwhelming and frightening, that the need to hit back hard has become the primary consideration. None of this is wrong – in an emergency. But social distancing in the short-term is one thing. Doing it long-term after the end of lockdown quite another.

In some activities, being close to others is not essential – even if it has been the norm until now. Much office work and manufacturing can either be done with people separated or wearing protective gear or with process changes minimising close contact. In others, closeness is an inevitable by-product: bus and train travel, for instance, or shopping. It may be possible to reduce this – though at a high price. But in others – most forms of socialising, recreation, hospitality, the arts, sport, religion and many communal activities – social closeness is integral to and a very large part of the point of the activity. Social distancing does not mean doing these things in a slightly different way. It means not doing them at all – or doing them in such a way as to drain them of all the fun, all the meaning, all the reasons why people wanted to do them in the first place. And that’s before we get onto whether it is possible to do them profitably.

Keeping everyone 2 metres apart has very significant implications for how we live and interact. It is not simply a health measure. Nor simply a scientific decision. (If it were, wouldn’t we have insisted on it to avoid the spread of other diseases with similar outcomes?) It’s unworkable: stop people meeting in restaurants and they’ll meet at home. It’s out of line with what other European countries are doing. If this report ( is to be believed, 2 metres remains the advice because change might cause confusion. (Even if promulgated by SAGE scientists, there is something frivolously inconsiderate about imposing a requirement with such far-reaching consequences simply because it is too much effort to communicate a change to it clearly.)

Is this really the way we want to live after lockdown is lifted? Are people and businesses really going to be required or pressured to live and work in ways which make it practically impossible for them to do so? (The legal status of government “advice” or “guidance” – and what happens if it is ignored or cannot be adhered to – will certainly keep lawyers and health’n’safety professionals busy – but give everyone else an almighty headache.)

Is the destruction of – or very significant damage to – large parts of our economy and society the price which must be paid? And, if so, should this be paid only by those most directly affected or more fairly shared? (It is an intensely political question for a government which has a majority from areas of the country which would be most badly affected were this to become the norm. Little chance of any levelling up if one of a region’s main industries has been destroyed.)

Maybe the risks should be explained and advice given about how one might try to avoid it. And that is all. Once lockdown is lifted, “social distancing” is a choice for individuals/organisations not a “rule” to be followed. Basic, sensible hygiene measures: yes. But the idea that you can have venues and activities where social closeness is integral to the very nature of what is going on at the same time as “social distancing” is surely contradictory nonsense. Let individuals and businesses decide whether to take the risk – a risk which is not, in any event, the same for everyone – as they do for a myriad other risks already.

Ah, the cry comes, it’s not just the risk you run but the risk you cause others to run: the health workers who treat you if you become ill, those who may catch it from you and suffer more severely or die. How dare you be so selfish? As if this isn’t what we do already every time we drive or leave the house with an infection which becomes severe in another weaker person? Or drink to excess? Or smoke, become overweight and unfit and expect others to treat us and pay for it too? Or indulge in extreme sports and expect others to rescue us, even at some danger to themselves? We don’t deny people treatment if they have been at fault in becoming ill or injured? (Should we?) So why the moralising over this virus?

There is no one or easy answer. People’s views will depend on their own position, that of those they care about and how shielded they are or not from the consequences. We value lives over money, so we say. (Though not perhaps so much as to pay carers a good salary and forego our inherited houses or to look after the disabled properly - How dare people put the economy, money, profits ahead of lives! No-one needs a café or a theatre visit or to make music in a band in a pub.

Why are we overreacting, say others. This is another disease like so many we have suffered before. Lives are also lost and harmed when we turn away from people, when we deny them the ability to work and earn and live a connected meaningful life, not merely an existence. Do we value the ability to reach out and comfort a crying mourner at a funeral? There is something inhuman and unkind about being forced not to. But, hey, garden centres are open!

We can live a chilly distanced life with only our basic needs met. But when lockdown ends, the question is not whether we can but whether we should, whether we want to. This is not fundamentally an economic or health question. It’s about how we live our lives, about what enriches them and makes them meaningful. It’s also about who makes that decision: each of us individually or the government for us.


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