From May 17, people in England will be able to give friends and family a «cautious cuddle».
Confirming that the next stage of the easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions will go ahead from next Monday, Boris Johnson said that from then, those living in England will be able to hug their loved ones again.
However, the government has urged caution over hugging, reminding that some people are «more vulnerable» to severe illness from coronavirus and that while vaccines reduce the risk, they do not eliminate it entirely.
In Wales, people have been able to enjoy a cwtch – Welsh for a cuddle or hug – since May 3 with loved ones in their extended bubble.
Those in Northern Ireland and Scotland will have to wait a little longer before they can embrace those outside of their household or bubble.
As desperate as we are to throw our arms around our loved ones, experts have struck a note of caution: Covid is a virus that thrives on human contact, and we are being urged to cuddle with care.
What risks does allowing people to hug bring and just how do you «cautiously cuddle»?
What are the risks?
Covid loves a hug as much as the rest of us do, the virus flourishes through human contact. This is why we have been forced to stand two-metres from people we know and like (and those we don’t) for over a year.
Despite a successful vaccination programme, falling cases, hospitalisations and deaths, the pandemic continues.
Hugs, therefore, will not be risk-free until when, and if, Covid’s prevalence shrinks. Prof Paul Hunter, professor in Medicine at Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, tells ITV News his view is, «if you don’t need to hug each other, then don’t».
Speaking in a personal capacity, Professor Catherine Noakes, a member of the Sage committee that advises the government, told ITV News: «We have to remember that this virus hasn’t gone away. While the cases are about where we were in September last year, we you know we know what happened in autumn.»
But she goes on to say: «I think people have been vaccinated and nobody’s got symptoms, I think it’s relatively low risk, hugging somebody who you know, your nearest and dearest.»
Prof Noakes warned that the risk comes not just with hugging, but the setting.
«A very brief hug is probably really quite low risk but if the hug is then the precursor to you spending the whole afternoon in the same small space as each other, then that’s probably where you’re adding in your risks,» she says.
How should I should hug?
Experts says hugs should be selective and short.
Prof Hunter said: «If you do need to hug someone then try and keep your faces away from each other and you are not rebreathing each other’s air.»
Prof Noakes reiterates that: «We know the viruses in people’s breath. And when you hug you are much closer to somebody’s breath. It is just simple things like, perhaps not being quite face-to-face, would help people not breathe each other’s breath as much.»
Prof Hunter suggests using this hug classification for people who are not in your bubble
OK hugs – polite hug, bear hug and back hug
Possibly OK, but watch where you are putting your face – one-way hug and ‘buddy’ hug
Best to avoid – intimate hug
Prof Hunter suggests having a «hugging list» for those outside of your bubble or household – and stick to it.
A face covering could be a good idea, Prof Noakes who also advises that people should hug outdoors where you can – and absolutely no contact if you have Covid symptoms.
Are hugs worth a possible spike in infections?
Many argue, that, yes, they are, that the mental health boost a hug gives is as important as measures brought into to slow the spread of the virus.
And there is plenty of science behind a cuddle.
Hugs release a chemical called oxytocin in our bodies. Scientists sometimes call oxytocin the “cuddle hormone» because it is triggered by touch and it is associated with happiness and lower stress levels.
Hugging has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower anxiety levels and even boost your immune system.
Can I hug my fully-vaccinated granny?
Vaccines have changed the course of this pandemic in countries, including the UK, where a a large proportion of the adult population have received at least one dose.
But they do not offer full protection, and, with the pandemic not over and threats of variants that may be more resistant to vaccines, remaining, hugging comes with caveats.
«If both of you have been vaccinated then the risk of transmission is actually very low but not zero,» Prof Hunter says.
Are handshakes back?
Is the handshake gone forever or will there be a post-Covid renaissance of this traditional greeting?
Hand hygiene has been a huge focus throughout this pandemic as good hand washing is seen as the first line of defence against the spread of illnesses, including coronavirus.We have been told to wash our hands frequently for at least 30 seconds, and, in between, smother them in hand sanitiser.
But while hands are potential germ hot houses, what scientists know about the virus is changing all the time, and airborne spread is seen is more of a risk.
Prof Hunter says: «Touch transmission such as shaking hands is still thought a likely pathway but it has been very difficult to prove it. So the biggest risk still remains droplet spread.»
Prof Noakes thinks handshakes, while possibly no riskier than hugs, could be sidelined for a while because they simply aren’t worth the small risk there is.
«We’ve missed hugs, particularly with grandparents, and people that we’re very close to. And they do matter for people’s mental health, I don’t know that handshakes do it in the same way. »Think about what the trade off between what you’re gaining from the interaction versus the potential risk of that. And I think the reward you get from a hug is probably much higher than you’d get from a handshake.»
What are the rules on hugging in other parts of the UK?
Wales lifted a string of Covid restrictions on Bank Holiday Monday including the reopening of gyms, community centres and swimming pools.
The newly relaxed rules also meant two households can now come together to form an “exclusive bubble”. Members of this bubble can meet indoors and “have contact”, the Welsh government description for what many in Wales would refer to as a cwtch.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has given no concrete date for those living in Scotland to be able to embrace again, although Holyrood hopes it will be possible to move to level 0 in late June.
On the question of cuddles, Ms Sturgeon said: «I cannot set a date for that point yet, but I do believe that over the coming weeks as more and more adults are vaccinated it will be possible to set a firmer date by which many of these normal things will be possible, and I am very optimistic that this date will be over the summer.»
Northern Ireland is currently keeping its arms by its side with current restrictions due to be reviewed on May 13 with May 24 pencilled in to allow the mixing of households in private dwellings, but no word on cuddles.
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