When COVID Restrictions & Friendships Clash, How Are You Meant To Deal?

Photographed by Jessica Xie
"I feel quite shamed and like an outsider with them," explains Emma*, 33, of two of her closest friends. She’s describing a seemingly innocuous scene: they’d met late last year, when restrictions allowed, for a social drink outside and a catch-up. But given the COVID-19 pandemic, situations like these, with the accompanying rules and regulations, aren’t quite as straightforward as they once were. Do you elbow tap in salutation? How far really is two metres? Meetings with friends, once joyous and light-hearted occasions, now come with an air of tension, and friends are falling out over them.
During the meet-up in question, Emma's pals hugged each other and went to embrace her before pulling back and saying pointedly, "Oh yeah, you’re not hugging anyone".
"It made me feel really stupid and like I was taking it all too seriously," she says. "They wanted to go inside because it was cold, although we weren't supposed to, and I had to be the one to say we can’t. It made me feel so bad and like I was being too much of a goody two-shoes." 
This feeling of discomfort is something Claire*, 21, can relate to. "There’ve been a few instances where I’ve asked innocently if friends are following the rules and they’ve taken it as an accusation. It’s causing so much tension: our usual lovely group chat is now mostly quiet as everyone is worried they’re about to set someone off."

My friend has gone away with a guy for the weekend during this third lockdown. She's had COVID herself.

Claire was left in tears after one such incident. "I asked about one person's COVID result, as I saw that they were at a gathering – when it was allowed – and it ended with me in floods of tears on the phone, apologising for even asking."
It poses a serious question: what do you do when some of your closest and oldest friendships are put under this kind of strain? Emma tells me that one of her friends has gone away with a guy for the weekend during this third lockdown. "I feel so angry," she shares. "She was hospitalised with COVID herself." Rachel*, 30, describes how horrified she was to see friends travelling long distances from London to go home for Christmas and then plastering it all over social media. "I totally understand Christmas was a tough time but it's frustrating. It felt very unfair to all those making sacrifices and to our incredible NHS workers. I feel we're all now paying for this."
Unlike some other issues or topics that friends may disagree on, feelings over COVID restrictions come from a place of fear and are likely to be felt at a deeply personal level, says clinical psychologist Linda Blair. "The effect of it [COVID-19 restrictions] is very direct and personal. This is why people are so passionate about it. Anger is a cover-up emotion for fear."
Indeed, if there’s anything we can agree on, it’s that the last year has left the general population feeling twitchy, nervous and heaping scrutiny on what were once mundane actions. But although it can feel like rules are being broken left, right and centre, while others are bending rules with the skills of a contortionist, there are some stats which argue that compliance has generally been surprisingly high. 
A study by University College London found that more than 90% of people in England reported following the majority of rules over the second lockdown. Likewise, an opinion piece in the British Medical Journal argues that adherence to COVID regulations has been woefully misrepresented in the media, allowing the failings of government and public health policy to slip by while we all hurry to blame each other. 
Interestingly, the UCL study also found that around nine in 10 people grade their own compliance with COVID-19 lockdown restrictions as better than what they think the population average is. But how important is it that we know what others are doing when, as we are told so often, the only behaviour we can control is our own?

English COVID rules have changed at least 64 times since the start of the pandemic.

Adam Wagner
The lead author of the UCL study, Daisy Fancourt, and the authors of the BMJ opinion piece, Stephen Reicher and John Drury, assert that it does matter because it has a knock-on effect on our sense of solidarity and observance of the rules. As Reicher and Drury put it: "If we believe that the norm is to ignore the rules, it may lead us to ignore them too."
Mixed messaging is another issue that certainly hasn’t helped. As black and white as lockdown rules seem at first, room has been left for 'creative' interpretations of the legislation – which government officials themselves have been guilty of – not to mention the mess that's been made at times in communicating restrictions. Confusingly, English COVID rules have changed at least 64 times since the start of the pandemic, according to a calculation by human rights barrister, Adam Wagner.

Don't compromise your own beliefs because you'll feel far more anxious.

Linda Blair
So what should you do if friends aren’t following the rules or you’re finding yourself clashing with them over their interpretation of the restrictions? You have every right to feel angry: these rules are in place for a reason and with so many dead and a third lockdown on, frustration and exasperation are totally normal reactions. The choice you have to make, however, is not how to control your friend's actions; it's how you respond to the situation. If COVID indiscretions are something you can live with in a friend (and no judgement either way; each situation is unique), then remember that while you can strongly disagree with a friend’s views or opinions, they (hopefully!) have other qualities that made them your friend in the first place. Try to keep in mind that this is a testing and highly unusual time and don’t be too quick to dismiss friendships, Blair advises. 
Photographed by Jessica Xie
If you do choose to confront them, approach with caution. "You’re not going to change other people’s minds," says Blair frankly. Whatever you do, try to stay calm and logical. "If you try to express yourself while emotional, you almost certainly won’t be pleased with the result," she explains. "But if on the other hand you feel avoiding it is just better – because it’s not forever – then do that." There is one point on which she’s adamant: "Don’t compromise your own beliefs because you’ll feel far more anxious."
Writing a note or letter – essentially, something you can’t instantly send – is a sensible move if you do want to communicate your views to a pal, says Blair. Recording your feelings at their peak might even feel like enough of an outlet for you. But if you then decide you want to send the note, editing it with the more composed mindset that distance brings is most likely to have a meaningful impact on the friend in question.
And what if you feel the friendship has been irrevocably damaged? Allow things to cool off and keep your distance for now but perhaps take some time before making life-changing decisions about the future of the relationship. Blair explains that it's not worth throwing out your friendships until you’ve explored all avenues. After all, the pandemic has taught us something very valuable: "If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that our connections are everything." 
*Names have been changed

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series