Family Life In A Bubble: The Complications Of Relaxing Lockdown
Published on 12 June, 2020 | Katie Welton-Dillon
I don’t think that there are many people who would disagree with the suggestion that the last 11 weeks have been incredibly trying for people in the UK.
Whilst necessary, the measures put in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus have restricted the ability of the business community to function anything like normally.
However, the greatest impact of the state of lockdown announced by Boris Johnson has been in the home.
As I described the day after the country effectively ground to a halt, the children of separated or divorced parents were at least able to move between households to provide a measure of the structure and routine which is so important to their development (https://hallbrown.co.uk/coronavirus‐and‐childcare‐some‐helpful‐clarification/).
Yet as I pointed out back in March, even those initiatives which were designed to support families were dogged by an initial lack of clarity which, in turn, led to confusion about what was and wasn’t permissible.
Fast forward almost three months and the same can be said of the Government’s latest attempts to deal with the toll taken by what for some individuals ‐ even free from Covid‐19 ‐has been a protracted period of isolation.
The Prime Minister explained that, from this weekend, adults living alone or single parents with children under the age of 18 would be allowed to form what he called a “support bubble” with one other https://www.gov.uk/guidance/meeting‐people‐from‐outside‐yourhouseholdmaking‐a‐support‐bubble‐with‐another‐household
On the face of it, his speech amounted to a positive development for those men and women cut adrift from regular contact with family and friends.
Even so, as I’ve been telling LBC’s Shelagh Fogarty, a lack of immediate detail about what the new guidance meant has led to concerns about what exactly it means and whether it may, in fact, actually make matters worse.
The changes are intended to make a positive difference for single, sole parent families ‐What ministers have correctly done, I believe, is identify this group as needing more support.
Confusion arises when we consider what, if any, difference the advice makes to the lives of separated parents.
First of all, there’s an important distinction to be made between sole and separated parents, given that many parents whose relationships break down see themselves as single parents.
Even so, former partners or spouses whose children have been allowed to move between their separate households during lockdown can continue to do so but the new measures are also relevant to them, albeit in limited circumstances.
If, for instance, both separated parents live alone, each is permitted to form their own ‘support bubble’, having a partner stay at their home or vice versa.
That is, of course, if they and their partner designated each other as their respective support: the partner could not have another, separate bubble of their own.
The situation is additionally complicated by the fact that it may result in multiple ‘blended’ families being linked ‐ new family units established by previously separated parents who have even gone on to have more children.
I’m not sure that having many households interconnected is precisely what the Government intended.
Furthermore, as matters which myself and my colleagues have dealt with bear witness, there are mothers or fathers who have stopped contact for whatever reason and might regard themselves as a single parent and, therefore, decide to introduce their own support bubble by linking to a grandparent, for example.
In my opinion, courts may well take a dim view of such behaviour and require compelling evidence as to why the non‐resident parent shouldn’t also be allowed to contribute to a child’s upbringing from their own lockdown bubble, which should be prioritised.
There is one other essential aspect of family life which is at risk of being overlooked under the new arrangements: grandparents.
On the face of it, the new measures seem to facilitate contact between grandparents and grandchildren. However, as with so much of the new arrangements, it’s not entirely clearcut.
Grandparents play a vital role in helping raise a child but the Prime Minister’s announcement means that a child living in the same home as both its parents can only visit a grandparent who’s living on their own.
Children living with a single parent can see one set of grandparents living together or one grandparent living on their own. When a child is moving between its separated parents, it may also see both sets of grandparents but only if its parents live alone.
What that means is that parents are unfortunately obliged to make a choice as to which grandparent or grandparents to visit. As innocuous as it may seem, it is the kind of enforced decision which could have repercussions for family relations long after lockdown is lifted in its entirety.
Children, parents and grandparents could arguably all lose out as a result.
The Government has provided more information on how ‘support bubbles’ are supposed to interact (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/meeting‐people‐from‐outside‐yourhouseholdmaking‐a‐support‐bubble‐with‐another‐household) but there remain the sort of serious questions which everyone could do without during these uncertain times.
In moments like these, families look first to parliament for policy and then to family lawyers like myself for an idea as to what exactly that policy means for them.
Where there is any confusion ‐ and media commentators have advanced any number of conflicting conclusions about how ‘support bubbles’ will interact ‐ people will offer their own interpretation of the rules.
By doing so, there is every danger that they may be mistaken and upset the delicate balance on which stable family life relies.