I cancelled drinks with friends last night. “So what?” you might be saying. “We’re all cancelling things at the moment!” But please allow me a moment to wallow – because I felt horrible about it.
Horrible because, like so many, I thrive when I’m around people; I live for dinners and catch-ups and parties and office banter. I love having friends over for wine and to laugh hysterically about something chaotic one of us has done, to talk about the ridiculous night out we had at the weekend, commiserate someone’s bad romance or to advise each other on what to do with our kids.
There’s literally nothing better than a date in the diary with a good friend that you count down to the way a child might on a calendar: tearing off the numbered days, “two more sleeps!” until you’re together.
The last time a beloved pal came to stay, back in October, we did it exactly right: we went for brunch and walked for hours through London, talking until our mouths ran dry. We went to a gig and then decided to “pop in, just for one” at a local nightclub at 10pm, predictably stumbling home after two in the morning. We danced, and danced, and danced. One of us may have even – shock – kissed a stranger.
Now? As a nation we’re back to giving each other wide berths on the street, feeling the anxious borders of an invisible two-metre cordon. We’re being forced to “prioritise” (and on the brutal flip-side: “deprioritise”) who we socialise with before 25 December, for fear of ruining plans with those we love, many of them older relatives, more at risk.
The Queen has cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch. The hospitality industry is now in crisis, because so many people are doing what I’m doing – cancelling arrangements and bookings in pubs and restaurants. The impact is both large and small-scale: I’ve had to indefinitely postpone my next meet-up with my beloved friend, who lives five hours away in Cumbria. I have no idea when I’ll get to see her again – if it will even be next year.
That’s because we are collectively now living in a limbo state – cases of the Omicron variant are escalating wildly; we’re now in Plan B in England, while Scotland has stricter restrictions. The government’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned in a depressing press conference this week that there are several things we don’t know [about Omicron], but “all the things that we do know, are bad”. Lots of people are going to get sick, he added. As The Independent stated in a recent editorial, the epidemiological case for a lockdown is growing.
And yet... those in charge are still hedging their bets, telling us only to “think carefully” before Christmas socialising, as if that gives us any concrete direction at all, as if that won’t give the leagues of naysayers and anti-vaxxers a jubilant green light to carry on the party. The majority of us are being forced to lock ourselves down, because the government won’t; because the people with the very latest access to information about this new variant – our leaders elect – are dithering. And it’s not good enough.
Meanwhile, Christmas Day draws ever nearer, so of course we’re being forced to make tough choices. Some of us will always be more cautious, some of us more cavalier – that’s just the way humans work. But I don’t think there can be one amongst us who doesn’t feel the virus snapping at our heels.
And that’s why, on a personal level, rather than spending last night dashing between two different fun pre-Christmas socials – a leaving do for a colleague, then “end of term” drinks with parent-pals closer to home – I sat alone at home instead, because it is safer. But it’s such a shame.
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December is meant to be a chaotic giddy carousel, a rollercoaster dash from one pub in the city to the other as you spread yourself as evenly as possible between festive celebrations. You’re meant to have 15 roast dinners before you get to Christmas Day; and a constant headache after too many sticky mugs of mulled wine. That’s just what it’s like – it sucks you in like an out-of-control tinsel-strewn tornado and spits you out in January. And I love it. I really love it. And I can’t bear that just like that, in a puff of Omicron-scented smoke, it’s all vanished.
This isn’t intended as a “woe is me” account; I’m fully aware that cancelling a few social occasions isn’t the end of the world – not least when so many will be heading into the festive season ill and/or in pain, taking deep breaths as they prepare to mark the anniversaries of those they loved and lost to the pandemic.
But as a nation, we’re in mourning – for people, for plans, for the lives we used to lead. And if the only way to get through it is by knuckling down and locking ourselves away, so be it – but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it’s easy. See you (sometime) next year.