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Lifestyle

Don't stand so close to me! The new rules of social distancing


From this week the lockdown rules have relaxed – groups of up to six can meet in an outdoor space, so long as they stay two metres apart. Anyone who can’t work from home has already been told to go back to work – while avoiding public transport. The sceptics among us smell a rat – with the alert level the same and the government’s five tests unmet, track-and-trace not ready and a government desperate to deflect attention from its shortcomings – is this easing really for our benefit, or just a way to kick responsibility back on to the population? 

However, rejecting the new guidelines altogether and maintaining your own, personal lockdown may not necessarily be the most socially responsible thing either. Prof Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine in Oxford, says: “We can’t stay in lockdown for ever. It’s too easy to make this about one disease. You’ve got to look at the wide spectrum of health issues, the backlog of other [medical] appointments, the impact of more austerity on people’s lives, the closure of schools and the effect on educational attainment, which we know is linked to health outcomes.” We won’t understand the dynamics of transmission – we won’t even understand how effective lockdown has been – unless we start to come out of it. It would be stretching a point to say that it’s your duty to attend a small and socially distanced barbecue, but for the sake of a Co-op burger and some coleslaw, I’m prepared to stretch that point. 

On the flip side, as the major restrictions lift, it’s easy to forget the minor ones, but they should not be underestimated. Heneghan points out: “There was a 50% drop in acute respiratory infection in the week before lockdown, so social distancing and handwashing were having a significant impact.”

In other words, we are living in one giant grey area, where judgment, common sense, good faith and, most of all, manners are going to be doing a hell of a lot of heavy lifting. So what advice do the etiquette experts – and the boffins – offer? 

How do you make sure that the garden party to which you have been invited will definitely have no more than six people?

William Hanson, an etiquette coach and host of the podcast Help I Sexted My Boss, was born to answer this question. “There was an awful tendency, before all this, to respond to an invitation with: ‘Who else is going to be there?’” (This implies you are checking that it will be cool enough, and is beyond rude.) “Now it is permissible, even healthy, to ask that. But you may still want to disguise the question, so if you’re bringing a cake or a homemade cordial, say: ‘Let me know how many it will be for.’”

If you know a gathering will end up huge, how do you politely refuse?

No manners specialist in town has given me an acceptable get-out for turning up only to find a packed party. Talk numbers before you arrive and then, as Debora Robertson, the co-author of Manners: A Modern Field Guide (out next spring), says: “It’s your job to express clearly what you need in a social situation, so just say: ‘I’m not ready yet for that.’” After that, it’s all in the tone and the intention. “If it’s not your intention to make people feel like they’re reckless or stupid, then that won’t come across in your tone.” 

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What if you want to bring your own cutlery or glassware? And do you need to?

Again, if you explain yourself plainly and make it a boundary of yours, a decent friend will accept that even if they think you are extremely cautious. Adam Collins, a doctor of emergency medicine, says: “If everything is washed and clean, and everyone, while they’re there, has their own individual set of plates and cups, that should be fine.” 

Can a friendship survive you wiping down their toilet?

You are now allowed to use someone else’s toilet if you wipe down surfaces afterwards. If you don’t want people to use your loo, tell them before they arrive. Regardless, Diana Mather, the author of The Good Manners Bears and host of the Granny Manners YouTube channel, has this timeless piece of advice: “Make sure you go before you leave.”

If you’re happy for people to use your loo, Hanson says: “I would, as a host, put Dettol wipes out. I would hope that people got what I was trying to imply.” As a guest, you don’t then need to be sheepish about having cleaned the toilet, because they in effect told you to do that. I know. This is all getting pretty intense. 

How long should you stay at a gathering?

According to Mather, absolutely not as long as you would normally. The longer you are there, the more some of you will drink, the less observant of social distancing you will become, the more of an awkward spot you will put anxious friends and relatives in. It’s not a four-hour gig. It would be polite, as a host, to set the terms – shall we have a drink between six and seven? – “And if it gets to seven and people are still chatting,” Mather says, “you can push it to half past seven.” How do you make people leave, though? This bit is easy, apparently. “You stand up,” Mather says authoritatively. “Everyone should take that hint.”

Can you share food? What, not even crisps?

There is no way to not offer these around, yet I’m struggling to see how you would get a Quaver off someone without coming closer than two metres, so it’s sort of a pass-agg move. You’re asking them to either break the rules or make a big deal out of not breaking them. I think you just have to eat these things privately, or buy more than one bag of Quavers.

At a whole population level, public health agencies are trying to move people away from buffet-style eating, where you are all digging in to the same bowl, and a large number of people are using the same serving spoon. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t safely cut a cake for six people or prepare salads for people.

Should you grass on friends if you know they are breaking the rules?

Hanson says: “If it’s a serious breach that is breaking the rules, then fine. But be prepared, if it becomes known who reported them, that is a serious breach of friendship and you probably won’t be friends with them going forward.” Robertson is more trenchant: “We’ve all got to stop the grassing-up thing. It came too easily to some people.” I think, from both a moral and manners perspective, no. 

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If you haven’t spoken to a friend throughout lockdown, are they still a friend? 

It’s really up to you, but don’t leave things because you feel embarrassed or awkward. Robertson says: “Phone them up, or email, or send a postcard to re-establish connection. Just be normal, don’t be weird.”

Remember, too, that it’s not all about you. We all have a tendency to blame ourselves when communication breaks down, but it takes two not to tango. “There’s this brilliant story in the Duchess of Devonshire’s autobiography,” Robertson says. “She’s upstairs on her wedding day, and she’s waiting to come down, and 85 million people are waiting to see her. And she says to her mother: ‘I feel a bit shy.’ And her mother says: “Don’t be ridiculous, nobody’s looking at you.’” I mean, it is brilliant. But mothers are also weird. 

How do you say ‘no’ to a Zoom because you have nothing to say and you hate Zoom?

I am currently going with: “I have nothing to say and I hate Zoom.”

What if your friends break rules on purpose because that’s just the way they are?

Collins takes the point: “Given that you’re allowed to have as many different sets of six people as you want, to me, that’s no different to having a barbecue of 12.” This is the moment at which you berate them with science. The magic number is because any group larger than six finds it hard to stay in the same conversation, at two metres apart, so will naturally start to cluster together. Just be reasonable, is the overall medical message here. 

How do you tell a friend that they are too close?

Someone doing it by accident can be repelled by a light remark. With a deliberate offender, Hanson says, you have to be firm. “You have got to step in and say: ‘It’s two metres, I’d appreciate if you would respect that.’ I wouldn’t say sorry, necessarily. Keep it short. If you soften it too much, it will weaken the impact. I know some of my friends probably would transgress, and I just won’t meet up with them until this is over.”

Given that some schools are now back, is it OK for kids to play?

Children are relatively unaffected by Covid and yet Covid is all we think about. But there’s a danger that because of this we might forget about their other needs altogether. Heneghan counsels strongly against this. “There’s been a lack of thinking about our younger generation, right across the board up to university age. They are at such low risk, them going back to school is no more risky than it is after Christmas, when there’s been an outbreak of influenza.” They need education, but they also need fellowship, play, fresh air and normality. So yes, they should be allowed to play with one another. If they are too young to observe any meaningful social distance, you just have to chase them apart (try not to be terrifying).

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Can you get into a car with a friend?

Heneghan says: “I got into a car with a person on Saturday. I’m also an urgent care GP, he had to drive me around. The important point here is that we’ve come through an era where, if you’re ill, you take a paracetamol and carry on. That has to end. The important alertness is that if you feel unwell, you have to take it seriously and get yourself a test.”

Collins gives something close to a definitive answer on this, and all things: “What people should focus on is not: ‘Can I do this specific thing?’ It’s: ‘What am I doing here that is genuinely beneficial or genuinely necessary?’ Lockdown is driving us all a little bit crazy and it affects some people’s mental health in really serious ways.” It’s really not as simple as: “Responsible people stay locked down for ever” and very few rules are absolute. “You have to ask yourself, honestly, whether you’re doing everything you can to protect yourself and protect others.”

What about if you’re commuting by bike for the first time?

Oh, hello fresh minefield. Alan Redman is an organisational psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London, with a sideline in the psychology of commuter cycling. His top manners tips are: “One, wave/smile at other riders. Always. Two, don’t shout at drivers or pedestrians. Three, don’t overtake and then immediately slow down.” More broadly, he says, there is too much focus on commuting being terrifying – it is at the start, but people overcome that fairly fast and afterwards get a huge sense of zeal from their sense of legitimacy on the road and their feeling of having sailed over the fear barrier. 

Is it safe to start dating? How far can you go?

As it is allowed for two people to meet, there is no reason you can’t go out on a date, so long as you can cope with pubs not being open. Given the two-metre distance, however, you probably can’t do much else. There is a hilarious legal loophole, here – as of this week it is illegal for two people from different households to meet indoors and have sex. The rules around outdoor gatherings, however, are guidance not law, so in theory you could breach your two-metre rule and have sex in the garden without getting arrested. So long as you weren’t overlooked, which would of course breach another law. And so long as there were six of you. No, wait … 

Who can I hug?

You can continue to hug members of your own household. You can definitely hug any of the six people you have just had outdoor sex with, in for a penny etc (joke! This is a joke). People I’ve been extremely tempted to hug include those who have definitely had the virus already, with the antibody test to prove it, and those who are at the end of their lives and claim not to care whether they get it or not. The expert advice remains: do not hug any of these people. 



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