For anyone adjusting to the rules set out under the government’s three-tier system for England, it won’t come as a surprise that they fail to match up with our lives. A “care gap” has emerged caused by regulations and guidelines in which people are severed from extended family, friendship and care connections.
A national conversation about the care gap began in May with a public outpouring of anger after Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham and his claim of “exceptional circumstances” justified by childcare needs. In research into care work during lockdown for the London School of Economics (LSE), my colleagues and I found that this was a turning point in people giving up on government rules. They were anguished that they had sacrificed their own ties for so long, but they were also given implicit permission by Cummings’ example to prioritise these ties above all else.
Families found creative ways to bend regulations as social restrictions eased. For example, since paid cleaners and nannies were allowed into homes but not relatives or friends, people simply paid a token amount to grandparents or fellow mothers. People broke the rules because of the intense emotional sacrifices they involved. The rules seemed unethical too because they prioritised financial relationships over those of caring ones. Eventually, due to campaigns by Ella Davis for single parents, and by Carers UK, families were allowed to link to one other single person household.
Under the English tier 2 and 3 restrictions, we have not returned to the extremes of the last national lockdown with exceptions for childcare bubbles, support bubbles with a lone person household, and essential care provision and support groups. The government has obviously learned that care matters, but they have not yet understood that people are unlikely to respect rules that break essential bonds by banning household mixing outside of one limited support bubble.
In places high on the index of multiple deprivation, it has become clear that, across all communities, interventions in households make little sense. Among disadvantaged and ethnic communities, family and friendship are broad and include several households, with sometimes more than six people living in a single household. Paid childcare and eldercare are rare because of cost and instead caring within family and friendship circles are valued. These capacious networks don’t fit into the new rules. The rules are seen as “nonsense”, especially when there are greater limits placed on these ties in tier 2 and tier 3 than on economic activities. They quite simply do not make sense in terms of our moral compass, meaning that some people choose to bypass them rather than denying their family or friends the vital care they need.
When people try to follow the rules, they experience emotional strains in navigating them. The majority of people we spoke to had faced mental health issues for the first time. Women in particular have worked hard to support others, with a “squeezed middle” of midlife women developing, who juggle the dilemmas of caring for children, young adults and elderly people. One 50-year-old woman said, “Mental effects were starting to show after three months despite the fact that I am a perfectly healthy person.” One mother from London explained: “I have been the only carer to my two children with no break as friends and family can’t help. I haven’t been able to care for my elderly parents. This has driven me to the edge of my emotional reserves.” It is important to remember that these stresses have never ended in parts of the country that were kept under restrictions such as Leicester and Blackburn.
What could be done about the impracticality of the rules? Our research suggests that the government should only severely restrict household interaction in tier 3. New social-bubble and rule-of-six policies could instead be introduced. These would dial up and down the levels of social interaction in terms of numbers of households connecting according to the severity of local outbreaks. In tier 1, up to four households of any size could form a social bubble. In tier 2, three households of any size.
During circuit-breakers or national restrictions we would have to return to tighter rules, with regular connections between the same group of six people to create limited caring networks. That could be one elderly relative being looked after by his two adult children and their partners, or two friends helping with the childcare of one family of four.
More household-centred, realistic rules would be likely to gain greater compliance and respect among all segments of the UK public. And fears about transmission in unregulated private spaces could be overcome by a public health campaign about Covid-safer behaviours in homes, specifically for self-isolation, multiple household interactions and domestic work. Caring has never been so important and so at risk.
• Laura Bear is professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, and a participant in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours and the Ethnicity Subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies
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