It’s not safe

I have stopped my polite Saturday protest outings, where I handed out home baked cakes to passers-by in my hometown and engaged them in discussion about Covid measures. I suppose I never truly believed that as a nation we would agree to teenagers and children not at risk from the actual virus being given the (experimental, liability-free, devoid-of-safety-data) Covid vaccinations. Once this was approved by our government, seeing my fellow adults – even fellow parents – champing at the bit to get shots into those disease-carrying youngsters broke a part of my heart.

What species risks needlessly harming its young on the chance that doing so might extend by a few years the life of its elderly? At 56, I am closer to being elderly than to being young, and this monstrous perversion of the natural order offends every moral fibre of my being. It has been a dark time, and I have fought against retreating into my tower, circled by easy-to-construct walls of revulsion and despair for my fellow humans.

But my heart knows that is not the way. I must always remember that there was a time in which I too colluded energetically with the measures introduced to combat the virus.

I stayed at home; I distanced myself from my family and friends; I believed unquestioningly, uncritically, what was claimed by politicians and reported by trusted media; I clapped the NHS; I wore a mask – and I judged those who did not; I kept my only child home and isolated from his friends for months; I held my breath as I walked past people outside; I did not see my single, elderly mother for months on end; I put on a mask to walk from my table in the restaurant to the loo; I believed that the development of the vaccine for those most at risk was an unqualified success story and our way out of this. 15 million jabs to freedom, I actually believed it.

Most bitter of all, while I had by this time already moved to full opposition to lockdowns and school closures, and although surprised at the inclusion of my age group (Group 9, the over 50s) in the vaccine roll out schedule, and despite not believing I personally had any need of it, I took the first AZ vaccination in March of this year, reasoning that I did not want low uptake in any of the 9 categories then listed to give our governments the excuse to delay lifting restrictions. This irony of this has lost none of its sting in the intervening seven months, as the vaccination rollout has trundled grotesquely and inexorably down the age groups to the current 12 year olds, but what’s done is done.

A year ago, having absorbed months of sophisticated messaging designed specifically to scare me (and for a detailed account of the actions of our government, the behavioural scientists advising them and the media, read Laura Dodsworth’s excellent book A State of Fear) I was indeed frightened, slightly for myself but especially for others, a dark conviction lodged in my core that it was dangerous, that it was not safe.

I met this fear in many guises and on a regular basis in speaking to people on my Cake and Liberty Saturdays. During the summer, with Covid cases and hospitalisations flatlining while cancer patients died untreated, I would suggest that restrictions could be lifted and so many sweet well-intentioned people would agree that yes, yes they absolutely should, yes the collateral damage was awful, it was tragic, but … not just yet. It wasn’t safe, yet. And when I asked them OK, so when would it be safe, what case numbers did we need to see, what criteria needed to be met for them to feel safe, they literally ground to a halt and looked at me in genuine bafflement, unable to compute this even as a possibility. Over the course of 21 Saturdays, not one person I asked this of ever came up with an answer. Looking into their eyes I realised that many of them had been so profoundly scared that they couldn’t even imagine a time when they would feel safe again.

What have we done? And how did we become so susceptible?

I contend that the unstoppable mission creep of Health and Safety has a lot to answer for, and that by allowing officialdom an unopposed say in the minutiae of our lives, we have unintentionally been psychologically groomed to regard as normal and legitimate a degree of interference which would have scandalised our grandparents, and been given very short shrift.

The Health and Safety at Work Act has been part of the UK legal system since 1974, and it was developed in response to the particularly dangerous employment conditions that existed in factories and mines at the time. It is the nature of all public organisations to expand their payroll, budget and remit, and the Health and Safety Executive was no exception (by 2019 it had a budget of £231 million and employed 2400 staff), spawning miniature H&S services, teams, departments and officers in every council across the country. Driven in tandem with the arrival to the UK of US-style litigation in response to accidents, the original laudable aim of reducing dangerous working practices in coal mines, oil rigs, building sites and factories has somehow over the years morphed into bans on flying kites on beaches, against putting Christmas decorations in work stations and only permitting electrical engineers to change the time on workplace clocks.

The HSE is to my mind a valuable organisation doing important work, and it is itself frustrated by how some jobsworth officials outwith the organisation zealously over-interpret and invent the rules, but the point is, this is what humans do, and we have indulged these martinets at a cost we are only starting to realise. By meekly acquiescing to these endless incursions into our private lives we have not provided the robust challenge that all good practice and good legislation requires.

Of course it behoves us to reduce unnecessary risk to workers. Of course we should mandate safe and sensible working practices. Of course we should have rules in place to minimise bad accidents – whether to customers, travellers, workers, students, patients or clients. But a line has to be drawn somewhere, and the correct place for the line can only be found by debate, and debate needs an opposition. By yielding without question to whatever new injunction emerges, by accepting dictats that we think are over-reaching or silly and not demanding a stout defence of the cost benefit ratio of every proposal, we have set a deadly precedent that has directly contributed to our current situation.

We have allowed ourselves to be infantilised and disempowered, we have permitted a willing suspension of our own common sense in favour of risk assessments, we have let our own critical thinking lapse in the face of political posturing, but worst of all we have slid imperceptibly into the belief that absolute safety is possible, that we can eliminate all risk if we only do as we are told, if we would only follow the rules handed to us by those in power.

It is patently obvious that huge numbers of people will not – cannot – take off their masks until they are told by someone in authority that it is safe to do so. You can explain until you are blue in the face that an aerosol virus the size of SARS-CoV2 goes through masks like dust blows through a chain link fence, rendering their mask comically pointless at best, but until a figure of authority gives them permission to take it off, on it stays. You can explain that fomite transmission has been comprehensively debunked (by the CDC, no less), but until the powers that be state that hand sanitiser is no longer necessary, the bottles and pumps and exhortations to apply them frequently will continue to proliferate.

And if this were the extent of it – self-imposed mask theatre and excessive hand cleansing – it might not matter that much. But I fear that as part of this process we have granted external authorities permission to over-ride not just our intellectual but our moral compasses also. And to quote Voltaire, those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.

This week, like every week for months and months now, there were 40% more excess deaths in the home than the five year average, according to the ONS. Of the 935 total excess deaths in the home this week alone, only 47 were Covid deaths. The measures that we have put in place to tackle Covid might be woefully ineffectual at their primary purpose, but they are proving obscenely successful at killing people in other ways.

Too damn right, it’s not safe.