Tel col about the new pandemic (sorry)

This man is especially excited about his starter.

Bad news, we need to declare another pandemic. The scientists haven’t picked up on this one yet, but I realised it was happening last Saturday night, shortly after sitting down in a London restaurant.

At each place setting was a sheet of paper, decorated with QR codes (those little squares of black and white pixels which look like a Magic Eye puzzle). A QR code for the a la carte menu, a QR code for the pudding menu and a QR code for the wine list. Zap each code with the camera on your phone and up springs a virtual menu. Choose and tell a hovering waiter. There you go, food ordered without touching a grubby, sticky menu covered with coronavirus and, also, the germs from certain people (mostly men?) who go to the loo and still don’t wash their hands afterwards.

I was pathetically entranced by the novelty – like a monkey who’d been handed an iPad – until I realised that it meant my friend and I wasted the first 20 minutes of dinner staring at our phone screens. So here, in a world exclusive since I haven’t seen the problem addressed anywhere else, is the first declaration of this new pandemic: a massive, dangerous surge in the number of people who wave their mobiles about at the table, which is extremely bad news for anyone trying to train a teenager – or even quite mature adults – to put them away.

This has been a growing threat for years. Cast your eye around any restaurant, bar or café pre-Covid and you’d see phones lined up besides plates and water glasses, external pacemakers that we had to maintain eye contact with at all times. I say ‘we’ since my own phone habits are not dissimilar to a 16-year-old girl’s: check it for messages, put it down for five or six agonising seconds, check it for messages again. To combat this, certain restaurants attempted containment polices. In 2018, Frankie and Benny’s introduced ‘no phone zone’ boxes which families were encouraged to use, but the power of the phones was too strong and the habit continued to grow.

Occasionally people with more robust immune systems would leave their phone out of sight, in their handbag or their jacket pocket, but over lunch or dinner they’d still find an excuse to check it. A good trick, I found, was to pretend I needed to Google something brought up in conversation while quickly scanning my emails and Instagram at the same time. If I was a government minister snatching a bowl of pasta during a national crisis, this might be acceptable. As a journalist more usually sent press releases about the new line of gin launching in Aldi, it’s not.

Alas now we’re being forced to use them. Not just for virtual menus, either. Apparently some restaurants are investigating technology to allow punters to order and pay the bill using mobiles, too. As for those who don’t have a smartphone, well, I’m sorry but you’ll have to go hungry. The phones have won and can now claim the table as their rightful domain, which is particularly distressing when you consider that most mobiles carry ten times the bacteria of a loo seat. Something to consider while you get started on the bread basket.

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I’d like to clear something up given the news that people are already rushing to book British cottages, campsites and B&Bs for their holidays next summer, as well as this one. I’ve seen this reported as a ‘staycation’ in several places which is nonsense. A ‘staycation’ is where you stay at home for a week and achieve tiresome chores – fix that cupboard door which fell off its hinges a decade ago, transform one of the children’s bedrooms into a gym, descale the kettle. A staycation is not a jaunt to Devon or Cornwall because that is what’s called ‘a holiday’. ‘Oh we’re just having a little staycation in Salcombe,’ I heard someone say recently, as if this was some sort of deprivation because they weren’t getting on a place. Bit spoiled.

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This man is especially excited about his starter.

Alright it’s been a while since I went on a date, but I’m baffled by the account of Prince Harry and Meghan’s first meeting. According to this new book about them, while he drank a beer and she a martini, the pair bonded over their ‘passions for wanting to make change for good.’ Eh? This doesn’t sound like any first date I’ve ever been on, where the aim has always been to swallow as many gins as possible while making awkward small talk with the other person about how terrible dating apps are, the merits of where you both live and the Netflix series you most recently watched before lunging at one another towards the end of the night. Maybe Americans do it differently?

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