No sooner had clarity been obtained as to how child contact would work within and across the tier system, than the government announced its suspension in England. From 5 November 2020, a 4-week lockdown will begin. Thankfully though, the position on child contact is very much clearer this time around.
Just like the first lockdown in spring 2020, non-essential shops, restaurants, bars and other entertainment and leisure venues across England will close to try to limit exposure to Covid-19 and protect the availability of NHS services. Those from different households are not allowed to socialise indoors or out, except for the purposes of exercise which is limited to two adults only. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own national arrangements.
What is fundamentally different this time is that schools and universities will remain open for the time being at least.
In a press conference on 31 October 2020, the Prime Minister made very clear that child contact could continue as normal and made it clear that children can move from one household to another for contact purposes or to live with the other parent.
So, child contact can and should continue with precautions being taken to make it as Covid-safe as possible.
It remains important for child contact to be carried out in a safe way, for the children themselves, their parents, siblings and also for the general public. Travel to and from contact should be carried out safely – with journeys limited, avoiding public transport if possible and observing social distancing.
However, if it is necessary for a child to self-isolate this is the only occasion to override child contact. So, if a child is exposed to Covid-19, is showing symptoms, is quarantined as a result of a holiday or would be joining a household where isolation is taking place, then contact may not continue as normal.
The President of the Family Division has given guidance when court-ordered contact ‘can’ continue but importantly, it the guidance does not say that it ‘must’. Parents will be expected to work together to try to alter arrangements to accommodate the practical realities of the lockdown as well as managing any health issues that may arise because of Covid-19. However, it is inevitable there will be cases where two parents cannot agree on arrangements going forward even if it is for a relatively short period of time.
The message from the court is therefore very clear that sensible alternatives should be considered first before a total cessation of contact. For example, consider a longer period of contact with each parent to minimise travel frequency. Where contact simply cannot go ahead, alternatives should be offered such as more frequent video contact and of course offering to try to make up any lost time between the child and the other parent.
So, a first step should not be an application to court. If it cannot be resolved amicable, consult a solicitor who will do their very best to reach agreement for you. Meditation may also be a way forward but given the time it takes to go through the mediation process, this will not always be the best way ahead if quick solutions are needed.
If you are struggling to navigate the rules and make alternative arrangement, my colleagues and I can assist you. Please contact our Children Team to speak to someone with expertise in this area.