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Brendan O’Neill

A ‘cautious cuddle’? No thanks, Boris

A 'cautious cuddle'? No thanks, Boris
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There have been some truly dystopian spectacles during the past year-or-so of lockdowns. Cops using drones to spy on dog-walkers. Park benches sealed off with yellow tape. Curtain-twitchers dialling 999 after seeing the bloke next door go for a cheeky second jog.

But this headline surely tops all of that: ‘Hugs will finally be legal again from next Monday.’ Read that again. We live in a country in which the government has accrued so much power that it now gets to tell us when we may hug each other. This should send a chill down the spines of all who care for liberty.

To be honest, I wasn’t even aware hugging had been outlawed. I’ve been hugging people for months. Also, government officials thought they could give a green-light to boozing — we’ve been allowed to drink outdoors, in wind and hail, since 12 April — and that this wouldn’t trigger an outburst of hugging? Have they ever met a drunk person?

Should I now expect to be interrogated for my hug-crimes? To name names? To dob in everyone who reciprocated the hug rather than saying: ‘STOP! We’re only allowed to bump elbows’? And must I now cease all human contact until next Monday, when officialdom will graciously return to me the right to throw my arms around an old friend or family member? It’s madness.

The discussion about hugging over the past 48 hours has been gloriously nuts. It kicked off on Sunday with Michael Gove saying that, ‘all being well’, the hug can return to everyday life on 17 May. ‘Friendly contact’ is something the government wants to see, he said. The government now gets to decide how friendly we’re allowed to be to one another.

But make sure your hug is a ‘cautious cuddle’, experts counsel. Make your hugs ‘selective and short’, we’re instructed. ‘Try and keep your faces away from each other’, says professor Paul Hunter of Norwich Medical School. ‘When can I hug again, who can I hug and what is a 'cautious cuddle'?’, asks one news report. Imagine if you’d been in a coma for 18 months and you woke up and saw that headline.

Forget Safe Sex — now it’s all about Safe Hugging. Apparently the ‘polite hug, bear hug and back hug’ are okay. The ‘buddy hug’ is ‘possibly okay’. But the ‘intimate hug’ is best avoided. Professor Hunter even suggests we all keep a ‘hugging list’ — a list of people it’s safe to hug. Actually, that could come in quite handy if you’re meeting up with someone you don’t fancy hugging. ‘Sorry, pal — you’re not on the list.’

‘If you don’t need to hug each other, then don’t’, says professor Hunter. But we never need to hug someone — we do it because we like it, because it’s affectionate, because it’s a way of showing love and friendship. Have we become so messed up by lockdown that we’re now discouraging any kind of interpersonal interaction that isn’t strictly necessary?

The bizarre hugging discussion has exposed just how much the political class distrusts the public. Layla Moran of the Lib Dems has called on Boris Johnson to ‘publish clear guidance on whether it is safe to hug relatives and friends, based on the latest scientific evidence’.

Have you ever read anything so officious? This is the frigid technocracy some people want to live in — one where people must refer to a scientific document before engaging in the reckless act of hugging. What next? A manual on whether it’s safe to hold granny’s hand when she’s upset? Scientific advice on the acceptability of patting a toddler on the head?

Moran’s most telling comment was this: 

‘Boris Johnson must not pass the buck by outsourcing responsibility to the public on social distancing.’ 

This is an extraordinary sentence. It is a perfect distillation of the nannying instinct. ‘Outsourcing responsibility to the public’ really means trusting the public. This is the prospect Moran is horrified by — that we should trust the public to decide whether to hug someone, when to be tactile, how to show affection. Instead, the government must carry on instructing us in the most intimate of our lives. Moran, please stop using the words liberal and democrat to describe yourself.

There’s another worrying thing about ‘cautious cuddles’ and the whole idea that we should return to normality very, very slowly — it implicitly downplays the extraordinary successes of our vaccination programme. Thirty-five million Brits have had their first dose. Almost 18 million have had their second, too. The vast majority of those will, of course, be care-home residents and older people. And we’re still advising against hugs for gran? Wasn’t the whole point of our vaccine rollout that it would help propel us back to joyful normalcy?

A cautious cuddle is an oxymoron. Officials can carry on being weird if they want to. The rest of us would like to go back to being normal human beings, thanks.