Diary

Social distancing destroys our lives as social beings

13 June 2020

9:00 AM

13 June 2020

9:00 AM

A lockdown diary is an oddly negative thing. At the dinner parties that we aren’t going to, we aren’t discussing all the interesting things that we aren’t doing. This week, I am not heading for the Austrian Alps to walk in some of the finest mountain scenery in Europe and enjoy a week of Schubert, as I like to do in June. The Austrian government has pioneered the technique of allowing facilities to reopen but only on terms that keep them closed. The beautiful concert hall at Schwarzenberg can open, but only with social distancing which reduces its capacity by 75 per cent and makes any performance financially unviable. In England the government plans to reopen pubs on terms that keep them half-empty and unprofitable. Theatres and sports grounds may be allowed to open but only on a basis which destroys the experience for the audience and the solvency of the venue. It is a reminder of the degree to which our social and cultural life and our parliamentary processes, in fact our whole model of work and play, depend on physical proximity to other humans. It is an integral feature of most activities in which we engage and the buildings in which they happen. There is talk of social distancing being required for a long time. Let us be realistic about what this means. Social distancing means the destruction of our life as social beings. For centuries, humans have put up with worse epidemic diseases than this and conserved the things which make humanity wonderful. Will we be the first generation who can’t face it?

Which brings me to the subject of sex. A tabloid headline on the day the new lockdown rules came into force provokes thought: ‘Sex with a person from another household illegal from today.’ As Professor Neil Ferguson and now Rosie Duffield MP have discovered, this is no laughing matter. Lovers everywhere will therefore be relieved to know that the headline is wrong. The original lockdown rules made it illegal to have sex with a person from another household. You could only leave your house for specified reasons and sex wasn’t one of them. The new rules are a generous gesture of liberalisation. You can leave the house for any reason provided that you do not spend the night away. Sex with a person from another household is classified as a ‘gathering for the purpose of social interaction’. This means that it is now okay provided that it happens in the daytime and not at night, and in the garden not in the house. Unless, that is, a sex worker is involved, in which case it will be ‘necessary for work purposes’ and okay even at night. Obvious, really.


The naming and shaming of Ferguson and Duffield raises another, more uncomfortable issue. Crises are said to boost solidarity. The assumption is that solidarity is admirable. Sometimes it is. The outpouring of emotion about care workers is a case in point. So is the willingness of neighbours to help the old with shopping and the unsolicited friendliness of people who hardly exchanged a word before. But that is not all that neighbours have been doing. Neighbours were presumably responsible for sneaking on those who visited their lovers or took tea with their grandchildren. The twitching of curtains, the quick phone call to the police and the press, the public outrage, have been among the more disgusting symptoms of the public mood. Solidarity has always come in two forms. There is the solidarity of mutual sympathy, and the solidarity of intolerant conformism. Crises bring out the best in us, and the worst.

What is a fanatic? The question occurred to me as I tuned in to another performance by Matt Hancock at the No. 10 daily briefing. Whether one agrees with the lockdown or not, the government’s presentation has been lamentable. With his hectoring manner, authoritarian assumptions and snarling threats, Mr Hancock has resembled nothing so much as the petulant headmaster of a third-rate school. You don’t hear the leaders of Germany, France or the Netherlands addressing their fellow citizens like that. They have understood that this crisis is about the balance between public health on the one hand and other equally important values, social, economic, cultural and emotional, on the other. Only now that the public has stopped believing his exaggerated messages of doom is Hancock beginning to recognise the other dimension. Unfortunately the scientists campaigning against lifting the lockdown have taken over where he left off. They are only interested in part of the problem, the scientific part. So I return to my original question. What is a fanatic? It is a person who has only got room in his head for one idea at a time.

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Jonathan Sumption is an author, historian and former Supreme Court judge.

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