This morning brings the news that lockdown restrictions will be tightened in England following an alarming surge in cases of Covid-19. The aim of the new rules, which feature a ban on social gatherings of more than six people, is, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, to be ‘super simple’ to make it as easy as possible for people to curb the spread of the disease. But, as Brian Bilston wittily expresses in the poem above, things aren’t as clear cut as the headlines would have us believe.
When I heard the announcement, my reaction was one of mild bewilderment. Wasn’t that already the official guidance, I found myself wondering. Or was that only for meetings inside? Or meetings involving more than one household. Or perhaps that was what the rules were in Wales or north of Hadrian’s Wall when the wind was in the east.
The truth is that there have been so many directives and counter-directives, so many local restrictions, and so many qualifications and adjustments to instructions over the past three months that it’s impossible to retain a sense of what is and isn’t allowed. The desire to get to grips with the latest round of Westminster commands is further undermined by the knowledge that, in a matter of weeks, these instructions too are likely to change.
As a result, most of us – yours truly included – seem to have been making it up as we go along, judging for ourselves what is an acceptable level of risk, according to our own needs and circumstances. This is all well and good in spaces and situations where you have control (with your family in your own home, for example), but it becomes more difficult when you host guests, or venture into shared spaces or onto other people’s territory.
In the case of shared spaces – shops, pavements and the like – a sort of majority consensus seems to hold sway. If most of the people in a given place don’t set much store by social distancing or mask wearing, it becomes almost de rigueur to ignore the guidance – and increasingly awkward for those set on wearing masks and remaining 2m from others to do so.
Having guests and paying visits to other people’s homes present a different set of challenges. ‘I don’t know how careful you’re being,’ is a phrase I’ve heard or said several times over the last couple of months, almost always when I meet a friend or relative for the first time since the start of lockdown and we try to negotiate the rules of engagement. In certain cases, this can lead to a sort of hyper-vigilance born of a desire not to offend or threaten the other by doing something that they may regard as unacceptably risky.
But in cases where there is a power imbalance in the relationship, coronavirus-avoidance measures acquire a fresh layer of meaning. I have, on more than one occasion, found myself obliged to bite my tongue or participate in a situation against my better judgement because I am unwilling or unable to challenge the people instigating it. The feelings driving my failure to stick to my principles in these cases have been many and various – fear of confrontation, a desire to be generous, polite and welcoming, weariness, apathy, compassion.
It’s highly likely that I in my turn have forced similar compromises on others. I certainly know that, for all my belief in the good sense of keeping my distance, I have failed many times to stay 2m from others in public spaces, often through absent-mindedness or cognitive overload. If I have inadvertently neglected to observe a precaution that a friend practices in their home, I’m sure many would be too polite to tell me. Hosting, after all, traditionally dictates that you defer to the whims of your guest. It’s difficult when manners and mores are hardwired into you to alter such patterns.
And so we blunder along, imposing and impinging on one another, doing our best to make sense of an insane situation, trying to balance conflicting needs and imperatives. And meanwhile the number of cases rises.