As the end in sight for the great lockdown of 2020, it’s an anxious and nervous time for everybody. We have to figure out safe ways of coming out of our cocoons and start to navigate this new normal that we face ourselves with.

The so-called “new normal”. Urgh. This phrase has haunted me for the last 15 weeks; I don’t want a new normal – I want the old normal back with the life I had pre-COVID. I want to go back to a nightclub and get hot and sweaty with a crowd of people that I don’t know. Be that anonymous person that I once was.

Whereas for most of us key workers, we have continued to work throughout the pandemic, we have had the luxury of the of being able to work from home. For me, this means that my bedroom has been turned into a make-shift office. Not an ideal situation for anybody is it?

Rest bite has arrived this week, however, as I was lucky enough be allowed to move back into the office to continue working from there. I was quite anxious about it all. I hadn’t been anywhere in the last fifteen weeks, so the thought of social interaction was also quite daunting. Two days in, however, and it feels as if normality has been restored in certain ways. Back into the daily commute, albeit with a face covering, and the same old office banter that previously prevailed. Getting up at 6.30 am for the first time in 15 weeks was a real struggle and having to physically dress to something more than a pair of comfy joggers and actually doing my hair to a reasonably presentable state to leave the house. It certainly made me feel a lot better for doing all these things and getting myself back out in the world. The first couple of days has given me a bit of a confidence boost that I need to start getting my life back to some normality; or in-fact this new normal!

The one thing that I have missed during this lockdown is intimacy. Being the lonely singleton that I am, a weekend isn’t complete without a drunken Grindr hook-up at some ungodly hour. I’ve been scared to do that during the lockdown, and I have made a conscious effort to avoid it. I’m now at a place where I am ready to maybe try something. Dip my toe back in, so to speak.

During the lockdown, I have had a few conversations with friends about their forays into sexual interaction throughout the pandemic and nearly everybody that I had spoken to had abstained. This got my thinking into whether the lockdown is going to provide the best opportunity to break the chain of infection of HIV within the community.

The Terrance Higgins Trust and Sexual Health Clinic 56 Dean Street uncovered research that 84% of people were abstaining from sex outside of their immediate household because of the COVID-19 lockdown. The same research also shows that whilst eight in ten people are going to forgo meeting for sex, nearly one in five (19%) said they wouldn’t continue or were not sure as lockdown enters its third month. This survey of over 800 UK adults also found that prior to lockdown; “almost half (42%) would have one sexual partner a month, while a third (35%) would have between two and five partners and 8% usually have more than five partners in that period”.

Ian Green, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: ‘This is an incredible opportunity to break the chain on HIV infection and help move us further forward in achieving our goal of ending HIV transmissions in the UK within the next decade. National HIV Testing Week is every November, but we need to act now because this chance won’t wait and won’t come around again.

‘It’s estimated that around 7,500 people in the UK are living with undiagnosed HIV, which is bad for their health and means they may unwittingly pass it on. If everyone is able to use their time in lockdown to get tested and know their HIV status, we can ensure something really good comes out of the devastation of the COVID-19 crisis.’

I reached out to Greg Owen, PrEP Activist and co-founder of the iwantPREPnow website, and he explained; “I think it’s clear from this small data set and from what we know about human nature to establish that this hiatus in sexual activity across our community is just that, a temporary measure. It cannot be sustained, nor should it be. Sex, intimacy, connection and pleasure are basic human needs for most people and I’d like to think we will gradually return to enjoying those things and celebrating them again once restrictions are eased further.

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“Of course, not everyone has managed to adhere to the lockdown instructions, and we need to be mindful of those people too. It’s important we don’t feed into a culture of finger-wagging and shaming. That type of approach has never worked and will never work. We learned that only too well in the darker days of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Instead, we need to encourage people to be honest. Safe in the knowledge that they will not be judged and offer them the support, advice and services they require.

“It will be some time before we have solid and robust data on what impact the COVID-19 lockdown has had on HIV rates. What we can say is lockdown has provided people with the time and opportunity to test. Not just for HIV but for all other STIs too. It has prompted Terrence Higgins Trust and community organisations and service providers to increase the capacity for home testing, which is a great thing.

“We might see a spike in STI diagnoses in the coming weeks”

On the subject of testing and diagnosis, Greg went on to explain; “We might see a spike in STI diagnoses in the coming weeks as clinics begin to re-open and more people step forward to test. We might also see that drop-off and fall as those who haven’t had sex in lockdown start to attend their regular check-ups and return negative results.

“We’ve made a commitment to end new HIV transmission in this country by 2030. We are well on the way to doing that. We have everything we need to make this a reality. The four cornerstones of this will be regular testing. Treatment for anyone who is diagnosed with HIV, supporting them to become undetectable, which mean they can’t pass on HIV, condoms and finally, making PrEP free and easily accessible to all who need it. This all begins with education. There are exciting times ahead. COVID-19 will pass and we will begin the process of reconnecting.”

As a community which has been ravaged by the stigma of HIV, this statement is a welcome sign that we are well on our way to ending new HIV transmissions across the country. The COVID-19 lockdown has proven a great time for us to do so. I’m looking forward to seeing the data that comes from it in due course. This lockdown has provided us with a golden and rare opportunity to break the chain in this disease which has had a profound effect on so many of us.

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One thing that the Greg told me, that stuck with me is that we must move away from the culture of blame, finger waging and shaming people for their choices. Gay men especially are often quick to pass judgement. I’ve said this before in previous columns, we need to make a conscious effort to be nicer to others within our community. We are not a pack of bullies. We are an inclusive and friendly community who takes everybody under our wing and looks out for one another. As we come back from the intermission, let’s make that change to be nicer to each other.

This weekend sees further restrictions of the lockdown here in England. From July 4th, the hospitality industry will re-open and we can finally go for a well-deserved pint. I’m not here to lecture about what you should and shouldn’t do but be mindful that this is an anxious and nervous time for everybody. I am heading down to one of my favourite bars in Leeds on Saturday to see how the new normal presents itself and experience it. I enjoy a bottle of wine as much as everybody else, but I’m nervous too. I want to get my life back to as close to normal as possible.

We’ve come so far within this pandemic, but still, there is a long way to go. Be safe. Be sensible. Look after yourself and most importantly, look after each other!

About the author: Al Jennings
Somewhere north of the Watford Gap, Al was born and raised in a conservative East Yorkshire town. Having escaped to London aged 18, and overseas into the world of Holiday Tourism, Al can now be found propping up the bars of Leeds, searching for that elusive Mr. Right.

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