Gazette contributor ALAN HAYMAN looks at some easy ways to fend off the untoward impact of having to stay home alone.

“You need five a day to stay healthy”, my mate said over a pint.

He must mean fruit and veg, I thought. So I explained that apples, bananas and citrus fruit often feature on our breakfast table. And thanks to peas, carrots and lettuce eaten at other meals, we usually reach the Government’s magic daily number.

It turned out that bunny food wasn’t what my pal had in mind.

“Conversations. Five chats a day. With real people”, he said. In top bantering mood, I replied that I stopped talking to my imaginary friends in primary school. Most of them, anyway.

That brought an aggrieved comment that I wasn’t taking this very seriously.

After a pause to get another round in, we resumed the debate. Seemingly, research has suggested that talking with five people every day is a good way of fending off loneliness and potential depression. However, Facebook friends and those we contact by text, email and Whatsapp don’t work in the same way.

In the early days of social networks, Oxford psychology professor Robin Dunbar found that even having hundreds of Facebook friends doesn’t provide enough support to get us through tough times.

So what about having a chat on the phone? Back in the day, Maureen Lipman’s garrulous Beattie character told us it was good to talk. Provided we used a BT phone, of course.

It seems that telephone chats are in the middle – not as good as seeing our friends face to face, but better than a few hastily texted words and an emoji or Xxx.

That pub conversation took place last year, but it came back to mind when the coronavirus bug became big news.

To cut their risk of catching Covid 19, it’s likely that some folk will choose to stay at home and avoid crowds and social events. And others with flu-like symptoms will sensibly isolate themselves till their fevers, coughs and sneezes have gone away.

These decisions are public-spirited, but they may come at a price in mental wellbeing.

Most humans are social, and indeed sociable creatures. We need to chat by phone or online when we can’t manage it face to face. And unless we are budding hermits or lighthouse keepers, being isolated is not an experience we tend to enjoy very much.

The Rev Matthew Smith, a minister in my church, feels strongly about this, and the resulting need to foster social contact.

He’s started a Sunday lunchtime event in his pub called The Art of Conversation.

It reaches people who like lively debate, but don’t want to sit through a sermon.

And if you don’t want social chats that come with a side-order of religion, Colchester Vegans and Humanists both meet for food or drinks on occasion and are pleased to welcome new faces.

I have no idea whether the Coronavirus epidemic will hit these and other local gatherings in the coming months.

But I do hope that the need or the wish to stay in isolation doesn’t push people into loneliness and depression.

Aiming to have five good conversations a day would be a good inoculation against these risks.

And it should hopefully work just as well if Covid 19 proves not to be an all-out crisis later in 2020.