The best things in life are free. So sang Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson in 1992, and so I have believed ever since.
The coronavirus, however, has put paid to this sweet life philosophy of mine. Because, thanks to the pandemic (and Boris Johnson’s ever-changing governmental guidelines), spending time with the people who mean most to me now seemingly comes with a price tag.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. In a bid to kickstart the UK’s post-lockdown economy earlier this summer, the prime minister encouraged us all to come out of our homes and get back into the real world. He ditched his ‘Stay Home, Save Lives, Protect The NHS’ motto in favour of his nonsensical ‘Hands, Face, Space’ mantra. He tempted us into restaurants with his ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme (who can resist a discount, eh?). And he unwittingly wound us up when he told us to “go back to work” (despite the fact that, y’know, many of us have been working from home all this time).
And so, just like that, we tentatively began meeting up with friends again. We spent time with family members we hadn’t seen in months. People began hosting BBQs, and dinner parties, and boardgame sessions, and takeaways-in-front-of-Netflix nights. The long-dusty cogs of our social lives began slowly whirring into action again.
Then, the government announced that social gatherings of more than six people were now illegal. That these rules would be in place for at least six months. And that this rule would be enforced through a £200 fine if people fail to comply, doubling on each offence up to a maximum of £10,000.
“Across the country, we have all made enormous sacrifices in the fight against coronavirus. However, the recent rise in cases makes it clear that more needs to be done to stop the spread of this disease,” said home secretary Priti Patel.
“[These] new laws will enable the police to fine anyone in breach of the rule of six. As we continue to fight this virus, I urge the public not to participate in social gatherings of more than six people in any setting, indoors or outdoors.”
Right. Except, of course, restaurants and pubs and bars and cinemas and shops and garden centres and gyms are still doing business (well, for now at least). Offices are still open. Trains are still running. Churches and mosques and other buildings of worship are still welcoming people through their doors.
So we can come into contact with more than six people at any given moment, really. We can sit at a table or a desk just a few feet away from someone we’ve never met before, and that’s… well, that’s fine. Apparently.
“I’ve paid a large amount of money to work in a coworking space,” reveals one friend. “And, while it’s done my mental health the world of good by giving me an escape from my quiet flat, it’s left me broke.”
Another admits: “I wanted to have everyone over for dinner, but the new rules slapped into place. We were only one over the limit, but we had to book two tables at a restaurant instead, just in case the neighbours called the Covid-police on us. So my plan of opening a bottle or red and cooking a thrifty spag bol for seven became… yeah, an eye-watering receipt at our local Pizza Express.”
And one more says: “My nan lives really far away from family, and all her local community centre’s free activities have stopped because of Covid. So she’s been going to the cinema, just so she has that feeling of having people around her.”
It seems that, as long as you’re churning money into the economy, it doesn’t matter if you’re breathing the same Covid-addled air as complete strangers. Because, presumably, the chemical reaction caused by money transferring hands releases some sort of coronavirus-busting toxin. One which, sadly, cannot be recreated in the comfort of your own home or local park.
I know families of five who cannot meet up with both grandparents at the same time. I know families of six who cannot meet up with anyone – unless they sacrifice a child or two, of course. And I know people who live in house shares with eight or so others, which means they can’t have anyone over for tea (let alone dinner and a snog) without begging one of their housemates to please vacate the building.
It seems ludicrous that I can, if I so wish, walk out of my house right now, hop on a train (whilst wearing my trusty facemask, of course) and share a carriage with 20+ others for well over an hour. I can grab a coffee at Starbucks. I can have a pint at my local. I can go get a massage. I can go swimming in a pool with other human beings I’ve never met before, many of whom are coughing and spluttering and releasing (ew) bodily fluids into the water around me. I can apparently even suggest to my loved ones that we all book tables at the same restaurant, so we can all chat to one another from afar.
What I can’t do, though, is have all of my loved ones over at the same time. Not even if we head into the garden for a chilly autumnal picnic. Not even if we wear face masks.
The best things in life are no longer free, it seems. In fact, they’re not even viable bloody options in the age of Covid-19. And I wouldn’t mind that, truly I wouldn’t, if there was at least some modicum of fucking consistency to it all. Because I’m sick of the government capitalising on our loneliness, on our boredom, on our very innate human need for company.
We’re either in lockdown, and social distancing for the greater good, or we’re not. Which is it?