March 25, 2020 - 2:56pm

Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, was asked a question at a regular Downing Street press conference about the implications of current measures on romance. “If the two halves of a couple are currently in separate households, ideally they should stay in those households,” Harries said. “The alternative might be that, for quite a significant period going forwards, they should test the strength of their relationship and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household.” In other words: move in together, or break up.

This is cataclysmic for budding contemporary relationships, which — thanks in part to the structure of internet dating — are built around options, flexibility and a continuous get-out-free clause. While these freedoms can be enjoyable, they have also entrenched a preference for hedging to commit, sometimes over years and years. The numbers of game-players and hedgers are now up: full of assurances of how much you like the person you’re dating? Time to put your money where your mouth is. Those keen to keep sexual arrangements in place may decide that they now have to provide not just emotional support but team-playing as well.

This new urgency to sign up or ship out reverses decades of social and cultural change in the workings of pre-marital romance. The move towards where we now are — complete with ghosting, benching, and haunting — has been in train since the 1970s. A raft of liberal legislation in the late 1960s, including both abortion and the Pill extended to single women (1967), made casual sex a bona fide option for unmarried women. The effects of this were felt in the 1970s: marriage rates peaked in 1972, and plummeted thereafter. Meanwhile the matchmaking industry expanded sharply after 1970, catering to a sexually more liberal populace, including a wave of newly divorced singles (following law reform in 1969, divorce tripled in the 1970s).

For the first time, those signing up for lonely hearts services could openly seek non-traditional relationships — including predominantly sexual ones. Time Out ran adverts like these in May 1973: ‘Female, attractive, well-bred, sensual, seeks …unemotional relationship….with completely uninhibited male….” Another woman in her 30s ‘feels life passing her by, would like to indulge with person or persons in the unusual and different. Wants so much to be turned on”. Men could drop all pretence of matrimonial ambition: “Tall chauvinist pig, in good nick for 43, seeks lady friend…hourglass figure and no irritating hangups,” advertised one.

Put under coronavirus lockdown, this particular pig would no doubt have reclassified what he saw as “irritating” hangups. Going from modern dating in non-lockdown conditions to close-quarters cohabitation without breaks or choice will put a whole new spin on the concept of compatibility.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)