14 February 2022

Elbow bump or fist pump? Navigating the new Covid etiquette


If the Government sticks to its planned timetable, then in just one week the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive for Covid-19 will be lifted. The last vestiges of the extraordinary public health regime which has governed our lives for the past two years will be gone, at least for now.

With no law to fall back on, it will be up to all of us to work out for ourselves what appropriate coronavirus etiquette is. This is going to cause tensions.

I confess that this hadn’t really occurred to me at first. One huge advantage from living in a big city and working from home is I rarely spend a lot of time with people I haven’t chosen to meet, or at least in a venue people haven’t chosen to go to.

After two years of the pandemic my social circle has thus had plenty of time to self-select for the sort of people who have the same risk appetite as I do when it comes to the virus, without that having any appreciable impact on how many people I see or how often I do anything.

For people who will have to work in offices with potentially infectious colleagues, or attend school with Covid-positive classmates, it’s obviously a different proposition.

But that is not, in itself, a reason not to lift restrictions – at least not if you actually intend to lift them at all at some point.

Admittedly, not everybody wants to do this. One doesn’t have to spend too long trawling ‘blue heart Twitter’ to find people suggesting that if Covid is now only as dangerous as the flu, well, perhaps the past two years have taught us something about how to deal with the flu!

However, for all that a lot of people have spent the last two years scared of the virus, we do seem to have reached a point of critical mass on ‘Covid fatigue’. When even people who in January were accusing those who supported easing restrictions of bloody-handed disregard for human life are cheerfully taking in a show in February, you know something has shifted.

This is not to downplay the concerns of people who have underlying conditions or other reasons to be warier of the virus than the headline statistics suggest, and the Government should ensure that the ending of general restrictions is accompanied by adequate, properly targeted support for them.

But it should be targeted support. There is a limit to the extent to which heightened vulnerability amongst a subset of the population can justify the imposition of controls on the general population.

We can dispute where exactly the limit of that extent lies. Some people think we should have focused on shielding the elderly and at-risk from the beginning, rather than imposing lockdown. Others disagreed, on the basis of the exceptional threat posed both directly to life and to the capacity of the NHS at that stage of the pandemic.

In fact, the public’s appetite for restrictions seemed to come as quite a rude shock to libertarian-inclined types who had imagined they lived in a nation of stout beef-and-liberty yeomen (not that it should have, given a third of voters backed shooting protesters the last time they were asked).

Crises and extraordinary circumstances do have a habit of shifting expectations. And judging by some of the debates I’ve had on radio phone-ins over the past few weeks, there does seem to be a view in some quarters that general restrictions based on their particular and perhaps indefinite special requirements would be an acceptable ‘new normal’.

(Such thinking isn’t new: see also people who backed the smoking ban back in the day because all their friends smoked and they didn’t see why they should have to make a personal balance of risks preference when the problem could be legislated away instead.)

This was exacerbated by the fact that the restrictions were much easier to bear for precisely the comfortable, home-owning demographic which exercise such a malignant grip on British politics (see also: housing).

Happily, even in our increasingly risk-averse age, such a situation would not be practically sustainable. Even if we hadn’t ended up with vaccines, people for whom socialising and going out is important would eventually have adjusted their personal tolerance for risk – humans are adaptable that way. And FOMO would have brought a chunk of the rest along too, as it is doing in our happier timeline.

As I previously argued, in the long-term the choice facing the Government was not between letting the nation socialise or not, but between leaving the party and events scene in criminal hands or not. They have made the right call.

Which brings us back to the fraught business of navigating a post-restrictions world and coming up with a code of etiquette to suit it. Dare you offer a polite handshake, at the risk of upsetting an elbow-bumper?

It will inevitably put some people in a position where they have to choose between their personal sense of the danger of Covid and the lure of the world around them. Not everyone will get what they want, and some may resent that they could have had precisely what they wanted if only the alternative had remained illegal.

But that’s the price of living in a free society. They’ll get over it.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.