Q&A: Are we allowed to hug during Covid-19?

Comforting children is now a public health issue, according to health experts

One public health expert said she would ‘stop short’ of close hugs. Photograph: iStock

One public health expert said she would ‘stop short’ of close hugs. Photograph: iStock

 

As restrictions come down, social contacts will increase. Often, this will mean family members from outside the same household seeing each other for the first time in months.

That can be a cause for celebration, but also, can bring its own set of difficult decisions and choices, especially around older family members.

Hugging your grandparent, or comforting a crying grandchild, is now a public health issue, not just a personal one.

What does the public health advice say?

Amid a lot of rapid change to the timeline for unwinding restrictions, the guidance for the over-70s, and the medically vulnerable, has remained consistent: you should stay home as much as you can, maintain social distancing with visitors, use allotted times for shopping and use face coverings during visits, in shops or in busy public areas.

The government advice is to “use your judgement to decide how best to apply” this health advice. Some will be frustrated by this, wanting a clear definition of what can and can’t be done, but that is unlikely to happen – no government can legislate for every circumstance, nor would it make a law against hugging grandparents.

However, it would be irresponsible to encourage it during the pandemic of a highly transmissible disease which disproportionately impacts the elderly.

So, public health rules, which provide a framework for decision making, are devised.

What do public health experts say?

Prof Mary Codd, an epidemiologist at the UCD School of Public Health, says that, despite temptations, an abundance of caution must govern physical interactions with people from different households.

“I personally would stop short of the close hugs – I know it’s very hard for children and grandparents [but] we need to maintain that distance.”

She says that the evidence is that risk of contracting Covid-19 was many times higher for the over-65s in residential facilities like nursing homes, whereas those in the same cohort living in the community didn’t face a higher risk of catching the disease.

This, she says, is evidence that cocooning for the over-70s worked, and worked well. Reducing the opportunity for the virus to transmit to older or medically vulnerable people remains a core strategy for limiting its impact. “I just think we all need to be double conscious”.

So what about in the future?

While the guidelines for the over-70s have not changed as quickly as other aspects of the roadmap, Prof Sam McConkey, head of the school of infectious diseases at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, says we need to find ways of maintaining close bonds in the time of Covid-19.

“We’re moving the debate more towards individuals taking more responsibility,” he says. This could involve individuals conducting their own risk assessment of the circumstances around an encounter, with strict hand-washing and respiratory etiquette – as well as self-isolation for the symptomatic – at its core. If someone is living in an area where there has been no cases for a period of weeks, that could also come into the reckoning.

“We do need to maintain our human relationships, to build strong relationships of trust within and across families, and that’s what a hug is; a physical expression of tenderness, and love, really,” he says. “We need to find ways of doing that which are safe.”

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