Tuesday 16 June 2020

Suffer the little children to stay away from me

Every week I go to my local Tesco and I’ve come to know some of the staff quite well. They have had a very good crisis. For a couple of weeks there was panic buying, but the staff remained capable, friendly and calm. Soon after that stock was back to normal. A one-way system was introduced, some perspex screens were introduced to protect the cashiers. I learned to go shopping when the store was less busy, but otherwise Tesco has been completely normal. It has been a model of how to keep the economy going during the crisis.

Lockdown is easing a bit quicker in England than in Scotland, more shops are opening more people are going back to work. At some point in the summer we may find that pubs and restaurants begin to open. It might one day be possible for men to meet women and not be continually two metres apart. But when the last lockdown measure is eased, there will still be one further task. That task will be to open schools and universities.

 I work in a university. Every year I have to perform a health and safety audit in my office. Could a book fall on my head from a shelf that is too high. Is there a box that I have not been trained to lift properly? If there is, I must go on a manual handling course. I work in about as safe an environment as could be imagined, yet it is treated as if it is infested with crocodiles.

Every now and again when I look out of my window, I see the local primary school going on a class outing. Each of the children has to wear a fluorescent yellow bib. It would be far too dangerous for them to go for a walk if they weren’t wearing one.

It may have been for the best of intentions, but Britain became obsessed with keeping risk to the minimum. I think this happened precisely at the time when almost all of the illnesses that might have killed us in childhood had been cured.

At the beginning of the twentieth century most people would have lost siblings to illness or accident. Adults who caught disease like cancer were pretty much doomed. Women died in childbirth. There were wars and there was poor sanitation. Life expectancy was much lower than it is now. But British people didn’t make much of a fuss about it. We took our chances.
But no longer. Every risk has to be minimised and if someone dies, we look for someone else to blame and if possible, sue. The media is desperate to accuse the Government of killing people. Will you apologise for killing 25,000 people because you didn’t introduce lockdown a week earlier? These same people will accuse the Government of heartless killing if it can be proved that easing lockdown just a little bit faster than was wise leads to the death of one person. After all that one person was someone’s father, brother or son.

This is childish. It would have prevented us doing anything in 1940, let alone what we actually did. It would have required a health and safety audit on each little ship, a navigation course for each owner and we would have picked up precisely nobody form Dunkirk’s beaches because nobody would have dared risk the wrath of Beth Rigby.

But where previously we were willing to take risks, sometimes great ones, because they were necessary, now we are more risk adverse than ever. What colour bibs should we all wear after Covid?

The Government stay at home campaign, plus the media’s constant dwelling on the illness and the gory details, means that lots of us would prefer to stay at home forever. But while all of us are scared there is a distinction between those whose wages depend on businesses making a profit and those of us who don’t.

Shop owners, pub owners and every worker who realises that if the company he works for collapses he will be out of a job are desperate to get back to work as soon as possible.

People like me who work in higher education are quite happy to do our research at home and communicate with others by means of video conferencing. I spend less time travelling to work. I get much the same amount done. I have more time to write. What’s not to like? I prefer lockdown to the world before.

This is why schools and universities will be the last places to open. The Government pays our wages and will continue to do so. We face few of the financial risks that businesses face, and we look down on profit as something rather vulgar.

Nearly everyone in teaching or in higher education is a Guardian reader and there are powerful unions which will do everything in their power to keep their members from going back to work because it would be unsafe for them to do so.

The truth is that every single teacher in whatever form of education is far less at risk than every supermarket worker. Each cashier comes face to face with customers of all ages some of whom will have been infected. Schools and universities are full of pupils and students who are the least likely to become infected and infect others.

But while Guardian readers will profess solidarity with supermarket workers the last thing, they want is to have to work like them.

This is why your child will be the last to go back to school and university even when everywhere else is packed inches from each other.

Teachers will be doing this for the benefit of your children or to paraphrase:

Suffer the little children to stay away from me.