Hug, bump – or wave? How to behave as UK lockdown eases

Sam Wollaston
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Robert Perry/EPA</span>
Photograph: Robert Perry/EPA

You’ve been invited round to someone’s house for a barbecue. Then maybe to watch the match, because now, as lockdown eases further, you can be indoors with other people too – as far as you can figure out, from the government guidance, which is over 5,000 words long for England alone.

Yes, here: “Indoors in groups of up to two households … you should continue to maintain social distancing.” Hmm, not sure how 2 metres is going to work on their sofa. Or “1 metre-plus”, whatever that looks like.

This new lockdown relaxation throws up a whole fresh load of anxiety: about the virus itself, whether you’re going to get it, and whether easing is a good idea or a fast track to a second spike.

But also how are you supposed to behave? How do you greet the other household – smile and a wave, elbow bump, or fully-eased hug. What do you bring – your own plates, food, PPE?

Jo Bryant, etiquette expert, handily condenses it down to three Cs: consideration, communication and confidence. “If you’re hosting something you have a duty to make sure people can have the option to socially distance. And the option – if they’re not comfortable – to maybe bring drinks or their own cutlery or even food. You need to be very open and loose with the arrangements, allow people to have those options.”

Communication is about telling people what to expect, or about how you’ve been at home, “making sure people realise you are aware that people might have different levels of comfort”.

She mentions a picture of a wedding that did the rounds, in which people wore different coloured wristbands depending on levels of contact they were comfortable with, from green (“OK with hugs and high fives”) to red (“Hi! I’m keeping my distance”).

“Confidence is that very unBritish thing of having the confidence to say what you think,” says Bryant, confidently. “People are putting themselves out of their comfort zone and possibly even breaking the rules because they don’t want to offend.” If you’re not happy about the bottle of ketchup that’s gone through five pairs of hands, don’t have ketchup. Same with distance, stick to what you’re comfortable with, respect what others are.

What about that greeting? “Normally I’d give you a hug but I can’t, ha ha ha,” is one suggestion from Bryant. “We are coming out of lockdown, we’ve got a bit of feelgood, approaching it with humour and lightheartedness is a good way of communicating what you’re comfortable with.”

Dr Charlotte Hilton, a behavioural psychologist, says that while more freedom is preferable for many, it will also cause increased anxiety about what to do and how to behave. “I guess the recommendation from a psychology point of view is take the point of keeping yourself and other people safe as the starting point.” That might mean wearing a face mask in public, certainly on public transport, hand washing etc.

“It has to be a personal decision,” Hilton says. “Some of the difficulty is a lot of these decisions are based on trust in the government, which is notoriously problematic. Particularly when there seems to be this incongruence between science and government, health and economy, it makes the decision-making process more difficult.”

Pub graphic

Harder still if your decision-making’s a bit wobbly. “After a few drinks in the pub it’s reasonable to think that attention might very well reduce,” says Hilton. “Therefore what we have is much more dangerous behaviour and I think that’s what most people are concerned about.”

Professor of health psychology at UCL, Susan Michie, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), acknowledges the psychological importance of socialising. “It is really important, and one of the mental-health costs of the pandemic has been isolation and loneliness, especially for younger people, especially for younger men … The issue is about how to enable that in a way that the risk level is commensurate with the situation we are in at the moment.”

She points to the still relatively high rate of transmission, that a vast majority of it happens indoors, the lack of a fully functioning test, trace and isolate system. And to the fact that alcohol disinhibits behaviour. “So even for those people who have gone out with really good intentions to keep socially distant, wash their hands frequently, not touch other people etc, after two or three drinks we know that will be out the window.”

Visiting another household of people you know and trust is one thing, the pub is another. In a situation of risk assessment and risk management, opening pubs is “the top of the hierarchy of riskiness,” she says. “I think it is a recipe for disaster.”

Michie is not impressed with the government’s decision-making on easing then, especially when it comes to indoor pubs. It’s too soon. But what about us, how should we behave? She has more faith in us, pointing out how many people locked down before being told to. “I say carry on exercising your good judgment like you did when you locked down before the government asked,” she says. “Avoid pubs despite the government saying it’s fine to go to them.”