When Alistair Foot and Anthony Marriott wrote the play No Sex Please, We’re British in 1971, they probably didn’t expect it to become unofficial government policy.
And yet, when Boris Johnson yesterday announced his much-hyped roadmap for easing the current lockdown, his statement made clear that getting a manicure or playing outdoor tennis will be legal long before England’s de facto sex ban is revoked. For while the dates and details for the subsequent phases of relaxing the rules remain tentative, the absolute earliest indoor mixing will be permitted is 17 May.
The scientific rationale is apparent – Covid-19 is an airborne disease, and transmission risk is much higher inside than out. But keeping the blanket ban on indoor mixing in place for almost another three months overlooks the fact that lockdown rules have made sex for millions of people illegal for most of the past year.
While restrictions have come and gone at different times and in different parts of the country, for most of England the window when indoor mixing was allowed was tantalisingly brief: from July until September or October, depending on the tier system (and non-existent for the residents of Leicester). Though certain loopholes remained (it was permissible to have someone in your home for work purposes, for example, or to travel outside of the country with them), this mandate has effectively banned consenting adults who do not live together from engaging in any kind of intimate behaviour.
According to Susie Alegre, an international human rights barrister and associate at Doughty Street Chambers, the length and severity of England’s sex ban represents “totally disproportionate interference with a right that is so fundamental to who we are as people”. And it may even be a breach of human rights law.
“Sex, intimacy and personal relationships are key to our right to private and family life,” she says. “Human rights law protects the rights of consenting adults to love who and how we want and to explore and enjoy our sexuality on our own terms. While the law may restrict those rights to protect health, any restrictions must be necessary and proportionate.”
The view from abroad suggests that there are other ways to reduce transmission and keep coronavirus cases down aside from a year-long sex ban. Other European governments have imposed similar lockdowns at various points, but mostly not to the extent that sex is illegal for people who aren’t in a neatly cohabiting unit.
At present, France has a strict 6pm curfew, but no ban on indoor mixing, while in Germany, private meetings are allowed with one other person. The Netherlands made headlines during the first wave for encouraging single people to find a “sex buddy” with whom to see out lockdown, and Italy made a specific exemption for “congiunti” – loved ones – which includes sexual and romantic partners.
This might look similar to the UK policy of “support bubbles”, but these only apply if at least one partner has the luxury of living alone, and each household can only link with one other. For the 735,000 shared households in England – representing around three million people – the bubble exemption is virtually meaningless.
To those dismissing this as a frivolous concern, Alegre points out that it isn’t simply an issue of temporarily going without sex.
“You don’t just meet someone today and start a family tomorrow,” she says, warning of the long-term harm the rules are already doing. “For women in particular, the inability to start and develop relationships over extremely long periods could prevent them ever having families.”
Another three months may not seem like much longer to wait, but for single people and those torn apart from their partners, the delay is both unbearable and – considering the context – hard to justify. There is a general misconception that this lockdown is relatively lax, perhaps because nurseries have been permitted to stay open and exercising outside with one other person is allowed. In fact, according to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker from the Blavatnik School of Government, England’s lockdown is currently the most stringent in the developed world. Denying consenting adults the right to experience any kind of intimacy, even as the vaccine rollout continues apace and nearly 18 million of the most vulnerable have now been jabbed, is an act of unnecessary cruelty.
And yet, the Prime Minister does not seem to even realise that there is an issue. The lack of attention paid to relationships, while specific guidance is given for zoos and theme parks, suggests a peculiarly British unwillingness to consider human sexuality or acknowledge the existence of those who do not live with their partners.
But exist they do. And since the Covid-19 crisis began, they have been dealing with all the stress and grief of living through a pandemic, without the solace and support of human connection.
Even 50 years ago, society was progressive enough to understand that “no sex please, we’re British” was meant as a joke. As the vaccine offers the UK a route out of lockdown, continued government intervention into people’s bedrooms is unreasonable, unfair, and unjustifiable.