In the normal way of things, I’d warm to the notion of illicit mingling. It sounds like something you’d do after a 70s key party at a ranch bungalow with a hot-tub and pampas grass. But Priti Patel’s outlawed mingling is no fun whatsoever. The Home Secretary has said if two families numbering more than six people in total stop to chat in the park it’s a clear breach of the new laws.
This is clearly bat-in-belfry bonkers. My big sister and teenage niece live round the corner from me, and our baby sister (41) went to live with them in March, so she wasn’t alone during the great isolation. From the time lockdown rules relaxed there’s barely been a day our combined households (seven people in total) haven’t seen one another. We exercise together, play Racing Demon and often cook for one another. But from this week onwards we should exclude one member of the family every time we meet for reasons that defy all known logic.
Only mildly less absurd is the notion that I shouldn’t hang out with my school gates pal, Teresa, who’s been a fixed feature of my life since social “bubbling” started. She’s also friends with my younger sister, while her two daughters are close to my boys. Our combined families have been hanging out all summer in back gardens and a local field, but now we can’t even cheerfully “bump into” one another at the rec – even though three of the children are back at school together. Not unless one volunteer glumster is sent to Priti’s naughty cupboard under the stairs.
The worst aspect is that this lunacy runs contrary to the renewed community spirit fostered under the original lockdown. It was while we banged our NHS pans, pots and cymbals that we learned once again the solid gold worth of mingling – even if was at some metres distance. I noted the more elderly of my neighbours would hang around on our street after the clapping stopped in a manner I’d describe as “loitering with intent to mingle.” I’d often carry two chairs outside, set them some way apart, then invite a lonesome pensioner to come and have a chat. By June I noted it had become pretty much obligatory – and very welcome – to stop and talk to those you knew. In pre-Covid days, I would whizz past friends on my bike as I headed to the station, yelling, “Can’t stop! I’ll miss my train.” Now taking genuine interest in each other’s health and happiness is our most precious social ritual. These exchanges are what keep us sane.
I don’t mind about masks, endless hand gel, or one-way systems in shops. There’s discernible logic in those safeguards, if partly as useful reminders we’re still fighting a pandemic. But it’s bewildering I can board a train or tube with hosts of strangers, yet can’t have a meet-up with my closest family – even though Cambridge’s infection rates are going down.
It’s even worse for grandparents, who feel their golden years are being blighted by separation from those they love most. My friend Becky Reed, a former nurse and midwife with 12 grandchildren and decades of NHS experince, has even started a petition to have children made exempt from “the rule of six” so her retirement isn’t rendered meaningless.
In short, I’ve never known so many outraged Britons in the mood for stealth rebellion. Illicit mingling is surely about to join a crafty cigarette, paying in cash, and doing 80 mph on motorways as Brits’ favourite ways of breaking the rules.