Love in the time of corona

Let’s go Dutch this Valentine’s

As we hurtle towards 14 February, spare a thought for Britain’s lovebirds. The chances are nearly five million passion-filled souls will be spending Valentine’s Day apart this year, after Covid killed Cupid. 

My estimate’s based on last year’s research from Bradford University, which found 25 per cent of Britons in established relationships were now “living apart together” – or nine per cent of the total adult population. And since this figure doesn’t include anyone who’s embarked on a relatively new romance, or those having illicit love affairs, or joyfully licit ones (the more Bloomsbury types amongst us) you can be sure the true figure is much higher. 

Amongst my own circle I know plenty of people making decisions they fret could put them on the wrong side of the law. There’s the divorced mum of two in the Shires, who throws open her door to her London-based boyfriend despite lockdown and a “bubble” with her sister. Then I have a married friend from Oxford, who feigns work in London so she can meet the lover who keeps her sane in a crazy world. Or the businessman who sneaks from Colchester to Devon to see his girlfriend, who must stay put to keep an eye on ageing parents.  

Many felt sympathy for 28-year-old “jet-ski Romeo” Dale McLaughlan, who crossed a choppy Irish Sea to the Isle of Man last December on a jet-ski he’d just bought on eBay. And all for the love of his new girlfriend, 30-year-old Jessica Radcliffe. McLaughlan had been denied a permit to visit Man, so his ardour was rewarded by a brief jail sentence, dividing the nation into those who thought “Jack-ass!”, and those who too would risk prison for a night in their beloved’s arms.

In short, never have so many lovers been parted by so vile a virus. Of course, there’s the provision for some people to make their lover part of their “social bubble.” But this isn’t as straightforward as it may sound. Many people have to prioritise elderly parents, or other vulnerable relatives. Those living with children might feel a friend who has kids close in age is essential for their offspring’s happiness. The problem arises when they feel an urgent need to see their sweetheart too – then realise that’s only legal if they recast them as their nanny, or cleaner.

The fact is no one’s been clear about how far you can travel to see the significant other in your love bubble. Will the Covid police look kindly on the person who leaves their city, crosses county borders, or takes a train for love? We’re urged not to leave our houses, unless the mission is “essential”. In my experience most impassioned couples believe it’s vital to see one another, while singles, puritans and the miserably married think such behaviour is the height of covidiot exceptionalism.

The British people need to know if it’s reasonable for couples to be denied the comfort of physical intimacy simply because they maintain two households

There’s no specific advice for British couples who live together apart. By contrast, the Dutch Government was admirably direct from the early days of the pandemic. They stated people who had sexual partners who lived outside their home could still see one another and issued “seksbuddy” advice. Officials at the Dutch National Institute for Public Health said if one partner went down with Covid, then they should practice distanced sex, like telling one another erotic stories. 

Meanwhile, the director general of the Danish Health Authority, Søren Brostrøm was even more direct with his pronouncement: “We are sexual beings, and of course you can have sex in this situation.” In a similarly upfront vein, the public health advice in New York was to avoid orgies but take up masturbation: “You are your safest sex partner.” 

But we Brits have been far less realistic. Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of England, said back in March couples who didn’t cohabit should, “just test the strength of their relationship and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household.” Which ignored all those couples who have children from previous relationships and need to stay close to the other parent. It also didn’t cater for those who are kept apart by work. 

Harries’ instruction was dramatically undermined when one of the UK’s leading scientific advisers on pandemic measures, Professor Neil Ferguson, was caught crossing London to see his married lover. If an architect of Coronavirus strictures couldn’t live without his sweetheart, what hope was there for the rest of us?

Remarkably, one person has remained silent on this topic. I’m speaking of our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. It seems curious a man renowned for his complex domestic arrangements should stay silent on this topic. This, after all, is a man who once told the journalist Petronella Wyatt (his lover at the time) it was “unreasonable” to expect a man to be confined to one woman. 

I can’t help feeling that the British people need to know if it’s reasonable for couples to be denied the comfort of physical intimacy simply because they maintain two households. Johnson, of all people, should know how hard it is for separated lovers to remain apart. Or perhaps the PM could delegate an official statement to Chris Whitty. Those official Covid broadcasts would be more cheery if our scientific advisers indulged in some sex talk.

So this Valentine’s Day I urge everyone to lobby the Government: More sex please, we’re British!

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and a former editor of The Erotic Review



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