When the Prime Minister made his address to the nation on Monday evening he stated in clear terms that households should not now visit relatives with whom they do not live.
Many divorced parents must have wondered how that would affect contact with their children. The following morning the government sought to clarify but in so doing a very serious anomaly has emerged and it must be addressed to avoid making difficult family negotiations even more stressful at this difficult time.
The glaring inconsistency revealed itself during the government Covid briefings on Tuesday. According to Michael Gove, speaking to the BBC in the morning, children of divorced and separated parents living in different homes can continue to move between both of them. A few hours later the advice from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to young couples, parted by the virus, was that if they had to be together, to live together in ONE home rather than travel between the two.
In recent years family lawyers have promoted co-parenting as the preferable option for divorcing parents. In this model there is no ‘custody’. Neither parent has the final say over important decisions – all must be agreed collaboratively.
However well intentioned, this strikes an ironic note because had collaboration worked well within marriage many divorces may not have been necessary. Of course, for the most part and, in most cases parents will put the best interests of their children first. But the problems arise when each has a different view of what is in the child’s best interest, as they may well do so particularly in these heightened circumstances.
I’ve spoken to friends currently in this situation who are worried sick at a difference of approach across two households or the prospect of a child having to isolate with the other parent, but feel totally powerless to resolve this without confrontation.
Based on Tuesday’s advice one parent may sincerely hold with Mr Gove’s interpretation, the other with the logic of Dr Jenny Harries.
In some cases it is bringing long moderated enmities back to the surface and adding extra strains to all parties, when a clear line from the government could assist.
Surely if it presents a heightened public health risk for young adults to travel back and forth, then it must also do so for children to do the same?
Or is it best for the child to have regular access to both parents in different homes, or best that they sadly limit access to one parent – skyping or visiting at a two metre distance? And to what extent would a peripatetic solution heighten risk to other household members?
Should this be treated primarily as a mental health and morale issue for kids and their parents or as a time urgently to prioritise physical health?
Where sole custardy is now rarely used in divorce – so too are residency orders, which would preclude the need for further clarification as if a child is legally resident in one place the situation is more clear.
For many families without this legal clarity, this contact issue will now seem more difficult to resolve amicably in light of the mixed message. Given the pace and scope of the changing situation it is inevitable that government will allow some anomalies to emerge, and that policy will evolve on the hoof.
In normal times most Brits’ instinct is to restrict government incursion into family life, but these are far from normal times and this remains an unresolved problem.
Who is giving the right advice? A politician however worthily trying to keep the peace across families, or the medic wanting to limit the spread of the disease?
A clearer line is needed urgently.