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Jul 1, 2020 | by Paul Frijters

The wellbeing costs of physical distancing

From helping babies develop healthily; to its vital role in end-of-life care; and our need for touch throughout our lives: physical contact is a basic necessity. So how much has physical distancing cost the wellbeing of the British population each month?

Social isolation – now commonly referred to as physical distancing –  was the main strategy of the UK’s response to COVID-19. The physical distancing measures ran counter to the recommendations on how to reduce loneliness. The NHS advice website for instance tells lonely old people to “invite friends for tea” and go “out and about” to visit others. This includes touching and physical proximity. Without physical proximity, children cannot play, adults cannot look each other in the eyes, lovers cannot touch, families cannot hug, friends cannot shake hands, and so on. 

The benefits of skin-to-skin contact

An interesting review on the importance of touching by Field (2010) lists the many things now believed to be linked with skin contact. Frequent physical contact can reduce:

  • sleep issues
  • anxiety
  • depression.

and improve immune system responses in both children and adults

Skin contact is one of the actively pleasurable aspects of sexual intercourse, and humans have tiny hairs specifically able to feel the stroking of someone else. This has demonstrable benefits: research on mice has shown that mice regularly stroked with a gentle brush develop faster and have a better immune system than otherwise identically treated mice who were not touched, a kind of research one obviously cannot do experiments on in humans, though it is known that touch deprivation is one of the things that happens in orphanages and is also associated with emotional development problems. 

Impact of reducing or stopping skin-to-skin contact

By banning skin contact and movement with anyone outside our households, physical distancing has large negative consequences on the mental health of all those affected. This is particularly true for children if they are no longer being hugged.

In the same way, the bonding and trust-building effect of intimate conversations and of close eye-contact are more difficult via Zoom and other online platforms. Reducing the likelihood of these conversations happening will potentially hurt people living in single households. For older people who are used to hugging and talking to grandchildren it will have been particularly tough, given how it came on top of the health risks they already were made anxious about.

Instead, loneliness – at least in some parts of the country and for some groups – was created on a massive scale and in early April, my prediction based on previous literature was that social distancing alone would cost the UK an average of 0.5 points of life-satisfaction on average. The Office for National Statistics data that has just come out reveals life satisfaction on average dropped to 7.1 in the lock-down period, down about 0.7 from the years before

The state-of-life data in May already found the drop to be highest amongst groups that could not go to work and socialise, and virtually non-existent amongst groups who could still go to their jobs. 

One can measure these effects in Wellbeing Adjusted Life Year, known as a WELLBY. One WELLBY is one unit of life-satisfaction on a 0-10 scale for one person for one year. Around 60 million British people with 0.7 lower life satisfaction then means a loss of 3.5 million WELLBY each month. If we compare this to the value of living an extra year of normal life, which is is worth 6-8 WELLBY and average, then those 3.5 million WELLBY lost are equivalent to the loss of around 500,000 years of life lost per month. 

On this basis, already in March I argued the repression strategies were not cost-effective, a point reiterated by a courageous article co-authored by the WW centre for wellbeing and just again recently by an Imperial College team.

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