Family or sex? Lonely Brits face a support bubble conundrum

Getty Images / TOLGA AKMEN / Contributor

It’s been a tough few months for people living alone. While those with housemates and family turned to each other for fun and comfort, stitched closer by the unprecedented proximity, those on their own were made to endure the pandemic with nothing but WhatsApp chats, Zoom quizzes and trips to Sainsbury’s to fill the need for human company.
But now, 82 days in, the government has granted them a lifeline. From June 13, adults living alone and single parents living with kids under 18 (with the exception of those who are shielding) can form “support bubbles” with one other household, giving them permission to spend as much time as they’d like in another home without social distancing.


It’s a move Abbey Robb, a therapist living alone in south London, had been anticipating since April, when Downing Street was first rumoured to be considering the concept. “We’ve been sitting for six, seven weeks going, ‘When’s it coming? When’s it coming?’,” she says.
But with this new freedom comes a new dilemma: of all of the people in your life, who do you choose to bubble up with? How do you choose between your son and your daughter? Do you pick your best friend or your friend with benefits?
It’s a decision Robb is taking seriously. She’s currently vacillating between a close friend who lives nearby, with whom she has enjoyed the occasional walk, and the man she’s been virtually dating for the last eight months. (Her brother and his wife, who live a 20-minute walk away with their new baby, “haven’t even made the consideration list.”)
“There’s this real drive there of ‘Yes, I want him to be in my bubble.’ But there’s also the fact that we haven’t actually met yet,” she says. “I’ve done this before with internet dating, where you build a really strong emotional connection, and then you just look at them and know it’s never going to work.”


To suss out the situation, she and her beau have scheduled a socially distanced dinner date in his garden on Sunday. If there’s chemistry, she intends to bubble up with him on the spot, even though she knows the outcome may disappoint her friend. “She definitely knows about (my relationship), but it’s tough because she’s just broken up with her boyfriend and she’s really upset and lonely,” Robb says. “But it’s not like I can only see one person; I can only have physical contact with one person.”
Paul White, who runs the Modern Milkman delivery service from his home in Lancashire, also struggled to decide who to bubble with. “My sister had a baby six weeks ago, so I became an uncle for the first time. I’ve considered bubbling with them so I could hold the baby… but I just felt that it would have affected my parents, me being able to spend time with the baby and them not. I thought it was a little unfair,” he says, adding that he also worried about infecting the baby “though I know it’s unlikely.”
There’s also the matter of prioritising his needs. As much as he’d like to spend time with his niece and help his sister, after months alone, with nothing but his daily dog walks and work to break up the monotony, what he wants most is to have someone to let loose with. For that reason, he took up an offer to bubble up with a close friend who lives across the road from him.
“She’s single too. We both love a good dance around the kitchen and a wine. She called me within minutes of the announcement,” he says. “Of course I can see my family, at a distance, on walks and the like (but) letting my hair down is what I crave the most. I mean, I’ve had some one-man kitchen discos but dancing with the fridge just isn’t the same. When you’re working so hard, letting your hair down, laughing ‘till you cry is so important for your mental wellbeing.”


When it came to choosing who to bubble with, Kat, who lives in Liverpool and works for the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, also had her pick. She thought about choosing her own family, but the two-hour commute was off-putting, so she had to pick between her local mates. In the end, she went with a friend who lives nearby with her toddler.
“Neither of us have family locally whereas others did, so it made sense to link up,” she says. “It means I’d be able to help them out or, equally, gives her a chance to see another four walls. If nothing else, I’m pretty excited at the prospect of being able to have a catch up with someone without it being weather-dependent.”
But her excitement is tempered by worry: “I’m a little apprehensive, as the R number is still quite high in the north west, but I’m a lot more comfortable (bubbling) with someone I trust than taking the leap to going back into shops and things.”
She’s not the only one hesitant to let people into her personal space after months of isolation. While Bianca*, a town planner in Tottenham, would love to bubble with her mum in central London, she’d rather wait until the virus is under control before visiting her. “I don’t trust that it’s safe yet, and I would not forgive myself if I gave my mum coronavirus, so I’m a bit unsure what to do with this social bubble,” she says.
Muna, a secondary school teacher in Camberwell, also plans to continue isolation to avoid the risk of transmission. “A few weeks ago they said you cannot go to your partner’s and then suddenly this, which feels like a big U-turn. I think it’s just ridiculous, I’m afraid, and just highlights the weirdness of their thinking,” she says. “I’m black and I realise the report that just came out recently said we are a little bit more high risk. Seeing family would be fantastic, but I’m also very aware that I’ve got an aunt who’s got diabetes; I’m aware that my parents are a bit more elderly. So I don’t think I’ll be instantly rushing around to do stuff like that.”
Muna also says a lot of people living alone have already been flouting social distancing measures, which means pairing up with another solo-dweller doesn’t actually guarantee lower risk.
In Leyton, for instance, creative director Andy admits to forming his own clandestine bubbles from the onset of lockdown to stave off the loneliness and boredom of living alone in a garden-less flat. He spent the first couple of weeks bubbling with a woman he’d started dating in the weeks before lockdown and, when that fizzled out, he entered into a new bubble with Emma*, a friend who lived nearby. “Emma was so anxious about being alone that I think she was hanging out with someone like me every night and telling me that she was just hanging out with me, whereas I really was just hanging out with her. She was my weekly human,” he says. “Everyone was doing this and just not telling.”
Now that the government has given the go-ahead, he encourages more people to enter into these sorts of arrangements without worry. The emotional payoff, he says, is worth the risk. As for him? “It doesn’t change anything, really,” he says. “But when you have permission, it kind of just makes it less fun.”
*Some names have been changed
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