What is all this isolation doing to us?

Scientists have described the pandemic as “the largest isolation study in history”. Based on reported cases of COVID-19, it is likely that upwards of 16 million people in the UK have experienced self-isolation since March 2020. During one week in January 2022, one in ten adults in Britain reported that they were in self-isolation. Then there are the more than 2.2 million clinically vulnerable people who were advised to shield for months from mid-2020.

Self-isolation – which can require spending up to 10 days without any in-person social contact or time outside – has been a necessary element of the public health response to COVID-19 to control the spread of the virus, but the impact on our mental and physical health is yet to be fully observed. Scientists have gone so far as to study data from astronaut missions to find relevant parallels about the possible consequences. A previous study into the effects of isolation on workers at polar research stations found that 60 percent of subjects reported depression, irritability and sleep disruption.

Sarita Robinson, the deputy head of the School for Psychology and Computer Science at the University of Central Lancashire and a neuroimmunology researcher, agrees there could be parallels between the isolation felt by overwintering crews in the poles and people in their homes during the pandemic. “What we find with people who are overwintering is that they tend to lose routine, become slightly depressed, maybe not at a clinical level, but there’s definitely that downgrading of emotions, and feeling like they have no energy,” she says.