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When lockdown measures were announced, Helen* and her partner knew they were looking at spending some time apart. They both own their own homes in the Midlands and until the coronavirus pandemic, seeing each other on weekends and for holidays had always worked perfectly. Suddenly they were faced with the prospect of going months without physical contact.
Hopes that their sex life might soon be restored were dashed on Monday when the UK government introduced a ban on indoor gatherings of “two or more persons”. The amendments to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) Regulations 2020 bill effectively outlaw sex outside of cohabitation.
“I quite frankly despair at the situation,” Helen, 41, says. “We have been so patient. We are being penalised because we choose to remain in our own property.”
At the start of lockdown deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries told non-cohabiting couples that they should “test the strength of their relationship” by either moving in together or staying apart.
But for Helen and her partner, forming a household was never an option
“It’s not that simple,” she tells HuffPost UK. “I live with my children. We’re both key workers. If my partner had moved in, he would have been further from work and his house would have sat empty.”
One in five unmarried adults in England and Wales has a romantic partner they don’t live with, according to a 2015 YouGov survey for Relate. Helen’s story is echoed by the hundreds of couples across the UK who have spent more than 10 weeks waiting to hear when they might be able to have sex again.
It is now permissible to meet outdoors in groups of six. Social distancing guidelines are still in place, but with barbecues, picnics, horse-racing, and even trips to Ikea all back on the table, people are wondering why physical contact has fallen so far down the list of priorities. And with no end to their enforced separation in sight, many, like Helen, are feeling let down and angry.
So how on earth are we going to get our sex lives back? While the numbers of cases of coronavirus remain high, it’s difficult to speculate, says Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham.
“Any relaxation in social distancing measures will increase the risk of virus transmission,” says Prof Ball. “The question is: what additional risk is there when two people from separate households have close contact? The risk of passing the virus between them is the same as people living in the same household. However, when it comes to picking the virus up, it’s potentially twice the risk because they may have much larger networks.
“Any relaxation in social distancing measures will increase the risk of virus transmission.”
For a while people were holding on to the prospect of being allowed to form “bubbles” with other households, a policy implemented in New Zealand. This would allow people to visit their partners at home.
In theory this approach ought to be safe, agrees Prof Ball, since everybody in the bubble behaves as if in one household and doesn’t see anybody outside that. However, it only really works for people who live alone.
“People who are single are often living in multiple-occupancy households,” he points out. “Therefore, that behaviour’s putting the other people at risk.”
It also means that in a flatshare of three or four, only one person would be able to see a partner. In this situation, something like The Netherlands’ “sex buddy” model might be preferable.
In May, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) amended its guidance to allow people who don’t live with a partner to choose one person with whom to have physical intimacy, including platonic affection as well as sex.
While the transmission risk to the individual is high, keeping the number of people you interact with to a minimum means the risk to the community is low. But Professor Ball is sceptical of how it would work in practice.
“It’s a very difficult thing to police,” he says. “What do you do? Do you have people walk around with a card saying ‘I’m allowed to visit this person?’”
Self-isolation and social distancing are only sure ways to avoid transmitting the virus, he says – and some people have cottoned on to this. A friend explained how she’d been to stay with her girlfriend for a week and then put herself in quarantine for a fortnight before seeing anyone else. Another confessed he’d spent the night with his partner but was now self-isolating for two weeks so that he could go visit his mum.
“If somebody is isolating themselves after being in contact with somebody else and they’re properly doing it for 14 days and not having interaction with anybody, they’re totally minimising the risk of passing on any virus they might have picked up,” says Professor Ball.
The problem, he adds, is trusting people to do it. “From an infection control point of view, it’s perfectly fine,” he acknowledges. “However, I would question how often and how rigidly somebody would adhere to that 14-day isolation?”
Creating a loophole that would allow couples to see one another isn’t unfeasible – many have pointed out that it’s considered safe for children to travel between households to visit separated parents. Professor Ball has some sympathy with this. “Is it any different to people meeting up because they’re in a relationship? I would say in terms of virus risk, no, it’s not.”
In the meantime, non-cohabiting couples and single people across the UK feel forgotten. Ruth*, 23, says she and her girlfriend are struggling with the lack of a time frame. “We can manage the distance and the time apart, but not knowing exactly how long it’s for is torturous,” she says.
Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford says it would be a mistake to underestimate the mental health impact of such uncertainty. “If you knew that it was just for the next two weeks, you could maybe eke it out for a bit longer,” she says. “Because it is so open-ended, it’s very demoralising. It can chip away at the confidence of the relationship as well.”
“It’s like telling a bunch of teenagers they can’t have sex. They’re bound to be more curious.”
The silence around the situation only makes people more inclined to break the rules – leading to riskier behaviour than if people had clear guidelines, rather like an abstinence-only approach to sex education, Beresford suggests. “It’s like telling a bunch of teenagers they can’t have sex,” she says. “They’re bound to be actually more curious and more experimental and maybe even more risky.”
As the UK moves towards ‘test and trace’, many couples are hoping the restrictions will be relaxed. But whether this would allow people to visit their partners at home, or to have physical contact with them, remains obscure.
Professor Ball says that despite appearances, there will be scientists in the Sage committee who are arguing for the importance of sex and physical intimacy. Sociologists in the advisory group understand the issue well, he says, but it will come down to what the government thinks is important.
“I suspect that the priorities will be more economic than they will be social,” he says. “I can understand why people don’t think that’s fair. But those are the government’s priorities.”
• Surnames have been omitted to protect anonymity.