To hug or not to hug? And what about washing your hands beforehand, turning your face away from your loved one, and holding your breath during the embrace?
As England moves into lockdown-lite, these are the tentative recommendations of scientists who warn above all to exercise caution – and plan your hugs ahead.
With research suggesting that the mental health of one in three UK adults has been impacted by loneliness since the Covid crisis hit, people who have avoided hugging friends and relatives for months are asking whether a loving hug is worth the risk of transmitting the virus – and how the risks can be minimised.
New research has found that those reporting touch deprivation score higher on scales measuring anxiety, depression, fatigue, sleep issues and post-traumatic stress. Touch deprivation was more common in people living alone, but the research also found it among those living with family or friends, suggesting that hugs are currently in short supply across the board.
People have gone to creative extremes to touch their loved ones during the pandemic. A man in Stratford-upon-Avon created a ‘“cuddle curtain” – a shower curtain with sleeves – so he could hug his grandmother. A care home in Brazil created a hug tunnel, while in California a set of grandparents donned plastic suits and snorkels so that they could hug their grandchildren.
Molly Rosenberg at the Indiana School of Public Health found that those who frequently hugged, kissed or met up with friends and family in lockdown were 26% less likely to report symptoms of depression and 28% less likely to report loneliness, regardless of whether they were married or cohabiting.
“One of the biggest benefits to hugging is in mental health and well-being,” she said. “We know that humans have evolved as social creatures and that connections with other people that involve touch help increase oxytocin, and lower heart rate and cortisol.”
But despite her findings, she warned: “People need to weigh the potential benefits of hugging against these health risks. At this time, we also need to be discussing consent for any kind of physical touch, including hugging, which hasn’t been normalised in the past but should be going forward.”
So is there a safe way to hug? Dr Simon Clarke, of Reading University, said it is about “distilling one’s hugging down to the hugs that really matter – and then making your own decision about whether it’s safe for you and the recipient of that hug to go through with it”.
Clarke judges each hug on its merits. “I don’t even shake hands with my own friends any more, but I do hug my 98-year-old grandmother, because she’d be horrified if I didn’t,” he said. “This virus is very transmissible but a quick, loose hug – an arm around the shoulder – is probably quite low-risk.”
But achieving a satisfying hug at both warp speed and arm’s-length isn’t the only problem. Clarke also advises avoiding face-to-face contact by wearing face coverings, pointing faces in opposite directions, and not touching the other person’s face or clothing with your face.
Spontaneity is out of the question, said Margaret Hosie, professor of comparative virology at Glasgow University. Preparations must be made – hands must be washed before and after – and breath should be held.
“Hugging is a complex business,” said Hosie, who diagnosed the first case of a cat catching Covid-19 from being kissed by its owner. “We’ve got to be logical. Given that the mental health benefits of hugging any species are significant and roughly equal, we should apply the same risk assessment to all such contact.
“So, if you’d hug your cat, then you can probably hug a human too. But,” she added, “as with all things connected with this virus, hug with caution.” And don’t forget to breathe out afterwards.