Here’s your fun fact for Wednesday morning: Provided its subjects are listening to their government, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been hug-free since March.
This has nothing to do with the fact the Brits are a bit cold when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Instead, as the country began taking a battering from the coronavirus last year, the government instituted a series of curbs designed to stop the spread. Among them? Banning people from hugging others not in their household or bubble.
Well, that’ll be changing in a few months, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Yes — a few months. Then you can hug.
“Asked if hugging would be allowed from May 17, Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast: ‘Yes. That is right. And that is the same date which you will be able to travel and stay overnight,'” the U.K.’s Daily Mail reported Tuesday.
“That is in step three, which is obviously five weeks after the step two changes that we were talking about a moment ago,” the health secretary continued.
“We know that close contact is how this disease is passed on and so the reason for that timing is by then all of the most vulnerable groups will have been able to have two jabs and we know from the data that was published yesterday that the first jab is very effective in helping to protect you against catching Covid or hospitalisation or of course dying from it,” he said.
“But the second jab adds to that protection, adds further, but we do want to be cautious until the most vulnerable groups have been able to have both of those doses.”
May 17, according to the Evening Standard, puts hugging in the next-to-last step in U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reopening roadmap, just prior to the June 21 target to reopen the entire economy.
To put this in perspective, here are other things the U.K. government thinks you should be able to do on May 17: Indoor dining, household gatherings indoors of no more than two households or outdoors with no more than six, making gatherings with up to 30 people legal, indoor mixing, opening pubs, in-person stadium attendance with 10,000 people or less (or a quarter-full, whichever is lower), and weddings, funerals and other events being able to be attended by up to 30 people.
Non-essential retail will have opened a month before you can hug people outside your immediate family on April 12. Same thing with zoos and theme parks. “Doors to libraries, museums, indoor leisure facilities, gyms and pools will also be thrown open — on your own or with your household,” the Evening Standard reported.
Just don’t you hug anybody, lest you spread COVID-19.
If you do, you could be fined £200 ($281) for a first offense in England, according to BBC. This can double for each subsequent offense, all the way up to £6,400 ($9,019).
The government made sure to keep this up for the holidays, as the U.K. Independent noted in December when Scrooge McHancock appeared on “BBC Breakfast” to announce that the government wouldn’t be allowing it for Christmas.
“It’s about getting the balance right and about allowing people to have a Christmas which undoubtedly will be different this year but still try to have that cherished Christmas with your family as much as is possible,” Hancock said at the time.
“We haven’t agreed yet a set of rules and a set of arrangements for Christmas but I’ve got no doubt that people will continue to respect social distancing throughout because that is so important for the control of the virus.”
He added that Christmas “won’t be fully normal” and that “there will have to be rules, unfortunately, to keep the virus under control.”
It’s questionable how successful this has been in terms of getting people to comply — and whether or not compliance would have made a difference anyway. (Consider the fact that in the U.K.’s top soccer league, officials have mostly conceded they’re powerless to enforce a ban on hugging on the pitch, according to Reuters.)
Whether or not it’s enforceable is one thing. What it represents is another.
A government that tells everyone not to hug delegitimizes itself at some level. It infantilizes its citizens to the point where even the most basic human actions — like hugging — need to be micromanaged by people like Hancock, a veteran parliamentarian who I imagine never saw his career coming to this.
This isn’t even mentioning the fact that the British tend not to be the most hug-friendly people in Europe — whatever trust the government may have built up regarding COVID-19 is quickly squandered when basic human emotion is suppressed because it could represent a transmission vector.
And then there are those who have listened.
“It’s lovely to see a new baby in the family, but it’s heartbreaking not being able to touch them and cuddle them and have your first photograph taken with a newborn grandchild,” Janine Stone told BBC. Her granddaughter Grace was born during lockdown and not being able to hold her has been “devastating.”
Another man told BBC that he came from a “very affectionate family” and not hugging his family “is something I miss greatly.”
How many lives has this saved? How many lives has it ruined? How many people have been sent further down the rabbit-hole of despair by a government that brings “good news” in the form of telling its people they can hug again soon — if you consider three months “soon.”
This is a basic human freedom, one that’s been stripped without ample scientific evidence.
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