On Monday, people in England, Wales and most of Scotland were once again been able to go on holiday, meet other households inside of pubs and restaurants, and have weddings with up to 30 guests. But there’s another rule change that only serves to underline the extraordinary year we’ve all lived through: we are now allowed to hug people we don’t live with.
Although first minister of Wales Mark Drakeford advised people in Wales to maintain social distancing with those outside of their bubble, England and most of Scotland have been told they may forgo the two-metre rule to embrace their loved ones after a year without a lot of physical contact.
As the coronavirus threat level has been taken down from four to three in England, 36 million people have had their first vaccine dose and 20 million have had both shots, the prime minister has permitted the not-insignificant step. Although Mr Johnson did reiterate, people should “take responsibility” and “use common sense” in doing so.
Despite some lingering concerns, particularly with regards to the so-called Indian variant of the virus and Ipsos Mori polling suggesting just half of people feel comfortable doing so, there is a glimmer of hope at a creeping back to normality. People shared their hugs on social media, including Jeremy Vine who used the hashtag #HugYourMumDay. First minister Nicola Sturgeon said of the relaxation: "I actually feel a wee bit emotional saying this... from Monday, as long as you stay within permitted limits, you can hug your loved ones again.”
Eireann Sovegjarto, an 18-year-old student from Brighton, tells The Independent she had not hugged anyone since April 2020 - her parents and brother are all essential workers so they made the decision not to hug in a bid to keep the risk of transmission as low as possible. “I honestly can’t remember the last time I hugged someone. It will feel incredible,” she says.
On Monday, Eireann hugged her grandma who she has not been able to touch since April and her photography teacher - “she has been such a great help” - as it was also her last day at college. After the visit to her grandma’s house she said it was “incredible to hug her again, it was truly the best thing to happen in the last two years”.
Kristin Hay, 25, a doctoral researcher from Renfrewshire, has really struggled during the pandemic. “I found myself increasingly isolated and agoraphobic. I think the first month or so I cried every night, it was horrible,” she says. She only lives a 10-minute walk from her mother, father, and sister but they have not had any physical contact since March last year - before the first lockdown - because her sister, 14, is immunocompromised and has Down’s Syndrome.
It was like coming up for fresh air
“They stayed in a bubble with my grandparents and I kept my distance. That was one of the hardest decisions I think I’ve ever made. It was really painful. We have been very strict with the rules and followed them to the letter,” she says.
On Monday she went over to their house to be near her sister, which she described as “wonderful”. “She has changed so much and has grown into a wonderful young lady during lockdown”. Kristin described the moment as like “coming up for fresh air” because it was so emotional.
“For the past 14 months I have been on survival mode, just trying to get from one week to the next. The fact that it could be coming to an end means that all that stress that has been bubbling under the surface that everyone has been putting to one side will spill out,” she says.
For Alison Durham, a childminder from Aberdeenshire, there were two reasons to celebrate 17 May: her birthday and being able to giver her mum a hug. “It makes it all the more special, we [haven’t hugged] since before the first lockdown in March 2020”.
Her mum came over to her house and Alison was looking forward to not being in the garden and being able to sit close to her mum instead of distanced. “[I’m] emotional but very happy,” she says. “It was wonderful to give her a hug, the best birthday gift”.
Karen Riley, 59, from Solihull, spent Monday with her adult daughter, who she has not been able to hug since March last year. “We have followed all the rules, my daughter is a midwife, a frontline worker, I’m also a recovering breast cancer patient and a carer for my elderly parents, 83 and 94, so we worried about transmission,” she says. The family marked the occasion by sharing a sit-down meal together inside the house.
I’m most looking forward to feeling her squeeze [me] back
Karen also plans to hug her parents - who have been vaccinated - on Tuesday in celebration of their 64-year wedding anniversary. “We feel it is the right time for us to hug. I think we have learnt that spending time with our family is the most important thing and to make the most of every day and enjoy life,” she says, describing the moment as “emotional”.
Ciara Lawrence, 41, from Epsom in Surrey, had her mum come over to her flat today for the first time in over a year. “The last time I hugged my mum was last year in March!” She described the moment as “special” and said that she had been thinking she couldn’t “take life for granted”.
Sophie*, from Scotland, spent the day with her closest friend of 10 years and went to her grandparent’s house for a cup of tea, saying the occasion “couldn’t come quick enough”. Although she was nervous prior to the hug. “I’m doing everything (cleaning, masks, lateral flow testing) to keep everyone safe. There’s nothing [better] to look forward to than a long, long awaited hug,” she adds.
“A few tears may or may not have been shed but I’m over the moon that I’ve gotten a hug from them. No words can describe the joy you get from a hug with your grandparents,” she says.
Although some have faced disappointment with hugs taken away at the last minute. For 28-year-old Éimi Quinn, she will have to wait a little longer, as Glasgow has just been put back into tier three lockdown. She was going to visit her mum, who has MS, and surprise her with a bunch of flowers and a “massive hug to let her know how much I’ve missed doing that” but now will have to wait until restrictions ease.
But Éimi still knows it will be worth the wait when it does eventually happen. “I’m most looking forward to feeling her squeeze [me] back. I think it’ll be pretty emotional, but it’s okay, she always cries first. I canny wait! I’m never letting go.”
As the country moves into the next phase of lockdown, experts have reminded people to continue to practice caution with physical proximity, with Professor Peter Openshaw of the government’s Nervtag group saying hugs were still a “high-risk procedure”. But for many people 17 May 2021 marked a milestone moment in a much longed-for return to normality, and a reminder of a time when a hug was a daily joy rather than an annual celebration.