I had a fairly unsettling feeling of deja vu this week when the Conservative government started slowly easing the country back into the not too distant past as Covid-19 case numbers started rising again, reliving, beat for beat, the sloppy carnage of the month of March (remember that?) out here in good old conkers-and-hot-choc September. I suppose this is the long-term plan for coronavirus management, until a vaccine happens: run every six months on a loop, dip the whole country into an uneasy quasi-lockdown and then slowly bring it out of it again, forbidding anyone from leaving the house one week, and then, as close as possible, legally demanding they go to the pub again the next. The tide follows the moon. I wonder where Dominic Cummings will drive to this time? I wonder which day we’ll designate for the NHS clap? Which previously unknown 100-year-old will get an inexplicable No 1 single out of it? I’m excited to stay in my house, tending a sourdough starter for 12 weeks and finding out.
For those of us who are still confused about whether or not it’s all right to go outside: it is, but Priti Patel will narc on you if you do. The new “rule of six” – which came into effect after one last blowout weekend – because coronavirus famously respects birthday picnics that have already been organised via WhatsApp – is just that: you can’t socialise with more than five people at once. Unless you all go to the same pub in separate groups of six, because that is fine. Or if you go to school. Or an office. But other than that, keep it to six. Unless it’s a grouse shoot, then you’re good for 30.
Come to think of it, I suppose you could all go to the same restaurant at once, as long as you’re on separate tables and shout across the aisles. Six people can spend time together if they live in the same house, but woe betide them if they walk as a group through a neighbourhood watch hot zone. Can your family of four bump into another family of four walking in the street and talk to them? No, because that counts as “mingling”, unless I suppose there’s a wounded wild bird on the ground between you and someone’s got a shotgun pointed at its head, and then it’s OK.
Patel herself confirmed to Radio 4 that she would call the police on neighbours who interacted politely with each other on the street, saying: “If I saw something that I thought was inappropriate then quite frankly I would effectively call the police. It’s not about dobbing in neighbours – I think it’s all about us taking personal responsibility.” You feel that uneasy sense that they’ve done all this before, don’t you? That’s the deja vu. You woke up in the same bed to the same song. Welcome to Grousehog Day.
The underlying suspicion with this government, of course, is that muddying the rules in such an arcane and baffling way is a feature, not a bug, and that undermining the rigid ideas of social distancing with special loopholes you can sail through as long as you’re armed and wearing a Barbour jacket is all a big-brained plan to blame everyone who didn’t follow the intricate rules to the letter if there’s another huge spike in infections – instead of the government, which has seen its test and trace system go into “meltdown”.
But there’s also that extra tinge of hypocrisy in the crisp autumn air: the government is encouraging us to go back to those frenzied curtain-twitching self-policing days of early spring, that special flavour of martial law where a roving military is replaced by neighbours who leave passive-aggressive notes about your parking technique and write down what time you go to Spar in a special notebook. It’s hoping we’ll all squabble among ourselves about whether we’re walking too closely on the pavement and instead ignore, like, the large-scale law-breaking that’s going on with the latest round of Brexit negotiations. “Yes this does break international law,” Brandon Lewis admitted in parliament last week, when it emerged proposals to override the withdrawal agreement were, you know, a wee bit more The Hague-y than first suspected, “in a very specific and limited way”.
Well, that’s all right, then. Is the law good, or is the law bad? It’s hard to tell any more. Give us some tiny laws to uphold while breaking big ones on the international stage, and everything will be fine. But it is starting to feel like we’ve been here before. Fish that banana bread recipe out again. See if you’ve still got those jigsaws you were weirdly into for a bit. Get the neighbours you don’t like cautioned by the police for talking. March 2020 called – it wants you to relive it all over again.
• Joel Golby is a writer for the Guardian and Vice, and the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant