Part 3: Understanding the pandemic – What has lockdown meant for ‘families beyond households’?

By Kelly Reeve, Understanding Society
February 25, 2021

This is the final blog in a 3-part series by CLOSER Partner Study, Understanding Society, exploring their response and survey results to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kelly Reeve, Research Assistant, looks at what coronavirus restrictions meant for grandparents’ relationships with grandchildren, and for parents who don’t live with their children, during the first UK lockdown.

During the first COVID-19 lockdown, the Government’s ‘stay at home’ policy meant families couldn’t visit family members they didn’t live with. We’ve seen a lot of anecdotal evidence about the detrimental impact this has had on people’s lives, and the subsequent lockdowns made people even more concerned about things getting worse.

Using data from the Understanding Society’s COVID-19 survey, Michaela Benzeval, Director of the Study, and I, examined what families said happened to these relationships earlier in 2020, after the first lockdown. In particular, we considered two groups who were perhaps most likely to be affected: grandparents and their grandchildren, and parents who don’t live with their children.

Strict lockdown

When the first lockdown came, on 23rd March 2020, it was very clear that the main message was ‘stay at home’. In the words of the Prime Minister: “You should not be meeting family members who do not live in your home.” After some initial confusion, the government clarified that parents were allowed to keep seeing children they didn’t live with – but children were only likely to see their grandparents in person if they already lived in the same household.

Thanks to funding from the ESRC and the Health Foundation, Understanding Society has been able to carry out six waves of its COVID-19 Survey (so far). This has already allowed for analysis of the impact of the pandemic on families within households.

We wanted to build on this by examining the impact of lockdown on families living across households. How many of these more ‘spread out’ families were managing to stay in contact? And what did these changed circumstances mean for them?

Headline figures

Overall, we saw a drop in grandparents seeing their grandchildren – before the first lockdown, just 5% of grandparents had no face-to-face contact with their grandchildren, but this rose to 34% of grandparents during the lockdown period. However, face-to-face contact for parents who live apart from their children under 16 remained largely stable, perhaps as a result of government policy allowing such contact and overnight stays to continue.

Contact between parents and children

Our analysis shows that for parents who had children living outside their household, 44% saw their children the same amount as before the lockdown. Just 9% of parents who previously had contact with their child(ren) did not see them during the first lockdown.

Mothers who don’t live with their children were more likely to see them more often during lockdown, while fathers living elsewhere tended to continue with the contact pattern they had before. Perhaps not surprisingly, parents who were key workers were less likely to see their children who live elsewhere compared to non-key workers.

Although patterns of contact changed for some families, the relationship between parents and children appears to have remained consistent, with 82% of parents living elsewhere reporting that their relationship with their child was the same as before lockdown. Interestingly, 14% of parents reported that their relationship with their child(ren) had improved, and just 3% said it was worse.


As one might expect, larger changes were reported in the contact grandparents had with grandchildren living elsewhere. Whilst some grandparents stopped seeing their grandchildren, some grandparents did still have face-to-face contact. Older grandparents aged 70 and above were more likely to have only remote contact with their grandchildren.  For some families, grandparents were providing childcare, but this also dropped during the lockdown. Before the lockdown, 26% of grandparents were looking after their grandchildren one day each week- this dropped to 5.5% during lockdown. After the first lockdown ended in June 2020, a quarter (25%) of them had face-to-face contact as regularly as before lockdown, while 32% still had some face-to face-contact but less frequently, and 6% saw their grandchildren more often.

Nearly 90% of grandparents reported some form of remote contact with grandchildren, with 48% having phone or video calls, 19% keeping in touch by text and 2% writing letters.

Meeting up with friends and wider family

We’ve also looked at other relationships, and the impact of COVID-19 on our social lives in general.

Before the pandemic, 96% of people were having some form of face-to-face contact with friends and family outside their home. Once the first lockdown was imposed, this dropped to 64%. The greatest change in behaviour was reported in those who usually meet up with family and friends several times a week. Pre-lockdown, this was 37% of people, dropping to just 9% during lockdown. Some people continued to meet friends and family, with almost a quarter of people reporting weekly contact.

A small but significant minority of people did not appear to change their behaviour, with 16% of people reporting that their contact with friends and family was the same during lockdown as before. This was particularly true for those living alone, which may have been a factor in allowing ‘support bubble’ households during the second lockdown.

Intentionally meeting one to four friends or family members was more common in January 2020 and February 2020 than in June 2020. On average, people regularly met with around 10 family and friends per month before lockdown, and this dropped to an average of four per month in June 2020.

Interestingly, there was a small increase in the number of people who reported ‘bumping into’ family and friends, but not doing so deliberately: 5% reported this behaviour during the lockdown, compared to 3% earlier in the year.

Encouraging signs

Our analysis shows that lockdown had a significant effect on family relations beyond people’s households, and it suggests two positive outcomes. Firstly, many people complied with the government’s ‘stay at home’ policy (although a sizeable minority of people didn’t),. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the pandemic doesn’t appear to have hugely disrupted relationships between parents and children they don’t live with – and that grandparents have been able to turn to other forms of communication to keep in touch with grandchildren.

Although we are now in another period of lockdown, there is the potential of positive news about vaccines, making us hopeful that life will return to something like ‘normal’ eventually.  Whatever happens, though, Understanding Society, being longitudinal, will keep tracking families over time to see what the long-term impact is on people’s everyday lives.

Further information:

This is the final blog in a 3-part blog series by CLOSER partner study, Understanding Society, exploring their response and survey results to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To read more blogs in the COVID-19: Perspectives series, visit our COVID-19 Longitudinal Research Hub.

Kelly Reeve is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), University of Essex. Follow ISER on Twitter: @iseressex

Suggested citation:

Reeve, K. (2021). ‘PART 3: Understanding the pandemic – What has lockdown meant for ‘families beyond households’?’. CLOSER. 25 February 2021. Available at: