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Are you ready for the return of hugging?

French President Emmanuel Macron and then US President Donald Trump hug - Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

The demise of some social distancing measures might be celebrated by some, but for others they will be hard to say goodbye to

Have you updated your online shopping basket? Listerine? Right Guard? Extra chewing gum? Are you ready for Huggy Monday and the advance of the personal space invaders?

With more guests allowed at weddings – and funerals – lairy Larry will be in his element: “Come on my best girl, give your old uncle a hug.” In joy or sorrow, there’ll be no stopping those of a tactile persuasion, so best be prepared.

Judging from headlines like “the darling hugs of May”, this is the moment we’ve all been longing for, the official ok to hold those closest to us close to us again. But is it? Will everyone seize this opportunity with open arms?

Science (and pseudo-science) suggests we should. A 20-second cuddle has been found to reduce the release of stress hormones and increase the release of feel-good hormones.

According to one American study, it can also strengthen your immune system and increase resistance to respiratory disease and coronaviruses (perhaps not that one – but the ones we fall prey to in normal times and that give us the common cold). Bet Lozza Fox wishes he’d had that bullet in his armoury; might have won him three more votes.

The mental health benefits are obvious, but there are others. Who will not be glad to see the back of those awkward elbow bumps as employed by besuited politicians – and absolutely no one else.

Now we can return to the totally non-embarrassing hand-holding, bear-hugs-and-kisses displays of mutual respect and disdain exemplified by Trump and Macron on their first date (that ended well). And Boris will be able to shake hands with everybody when he next visits a hospital full of infectious patients. Phew!

So much for the public stage, what about in our private and professional lives? My suspicion is that true huggers have been at it even without the prime ministerial nod.

One demonstrative friend, who works in a school, didn’t see her 90-year-old father at all during lockdown, but has been hugging him since visits have been allowed. “His response to my hesitancy was that if he couldn’t give his daughter a hug at his age, then he would take the risk of contracting the virus. Obviously I obliged, but I then had to live with the guilt for the next 7-10 days as I waited to see if he became ill. It helps that he has had both jabs and I’ve had my first.”

Another, a vet, has also been embracing her pensioner parents – “I hug mum round her knees, holding my breath”. She says there’ll be no other hugs for her until she is vaccinated, even though she is desperate to return to her full-on ways: “By the time I can be safely indoors, I suspect I will become OTT and do naked snow angels in a sprinkled packet of cornflakes on their kitchen floor – and then stand up and lick them.”

But not yet. Monday will change little for either of these women. Both talk about using their hugs wisely and recognise that there will need to be a new etiquette, such as asking before flinging their arms around someone.

There is plenty of advice available online – if only the office sex pests would read it – including a comprehensive guide to 13 different types of hug, ranging from the ‘me hug’ and ‘hand hug’ (aka a handshake), through cuddles, to the ‘dancefloor’, ‘reverse’ and ‘wandering hands’… There’s a code of conduct for wandering hands?

Our leaders have simply advised “caution” and “perhaps turn your face away slightly”. Very helpful. No wonder a third friend – who has been hugging her daughter but sees no one else – has concluded: “I don’t pay any attention to what Johnson says, but keep an eye on the science.”

“I guess I’ll armpit dive or swerve those where I don’t need to take the risk,” says the unvaccinated vet. “But if I have to put my best friend’s dog to sleep, I’ll go for it, rather than stroking them with a pool noodle as I had to do last summer.”

Maybe that’s what the Express meant by “British” common sense in its characteristically and unnecessarily jingoistic splash headline on Tuesday this week. There is a national trait at play here – and it’s not common sense. The rest of the world may not, as the Express implied, be reckless Covid-spreading idiots who can’t keep their hands, cheeks and lips to themselves. But everyone else is more touchy-feely than we are; that “British reserve” image is both well-deserved and well-researched.

Oxford psychologists have found that we are the nation most ill-at-ease with physical contact with strangers. To which I, personally, would add “and acquaintances… and friends… and most of the family”.

While my school assistant and vet friends leap forward, arms outstretched, as the front door opens, I’m the one lurking behind, looking at the ground, dreading my turn. Hug? Kiss? Air or lips? One cheek or two? And which one first? I am not alone.

For antisocial types like me, Covid has been one huge get-into-jail-free card. I can commune with my garden, my dog, my family (in that order). I can wave to my neighbour across the fence. I can buy what I need with minimal human contact.

It doesn’t matter that my hair looks a fright; should I need to smarten up, I can pin it up with a clip. It would be nice if it were cut, but it’s even nicer not to struggle to make small talk with the stylist. For more than a year, opportunities for saying or doing the wrong thing, misjudging the tone, having a dry, wry joke misinterpreted, have been almost non-existent.

Now all that is changing. We’ve been out to dinner with friends. A table at the pub is booked for next Friday (albeit outside). No one can pretend to have a full engagement diary, so “Sorry I’m busy” doesn’t cut it. The recluse’s excuses are being removed.

At least I have this last one: as I write this, I should be with my two oldest friends at a London wine bar. I’m keen to see them, but not to venture beyond the garden gate. I’m far from distraught at being here in sunny Essex with a lovely deadline to meet.

Next month I shall have to get on that train. Normality beckons. I’m glad for those who want and need it – even I can see that a human arm is more comforting than a tube of Styrofoam. But it scares the hell out of me.

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