We are going to need some new words. Bizarre is no longer strong enough and insanity and madness barely get to the mark. Once we have heard the craziest pronouncement from a government official another one comes along to top even that, when we hardly thought it possible. The theatrical antics on display daily in these strange scenes at the tri-podium draped with a surreal strapline, the minister flanked by their advisors, the chiefs of staff from the twin pillars of science and medicine, with the meek media dutifully waiting their turn to pose an innocuous question, have a strange comic element to them. It is really hard to take seriously. These people must be having a laugh. But it doesn’t seem they are. Yet you wonder why they would put them themselves through this trial each day. In the age of twitter, it seems hardly necessary. I particularly feel for Scotland’s First minister who seldom seems to be able to trust a depute for the task. Perhaps it gives extra kudos and gravitas to the words being said. Perhaps it carries a level of sobriety to the situation in the hope that the public get the message. But the trouble is with all these things the effect quickly wears off and people can get pretty bored with the figures, the predictable pattern and the school teachery scolding.
One of the weirdest things is the way that Ministers are so suddenly involved in the detail and minutia of our lives. If someone told you this would happen a year ago, you would not believe them. So many activities are now being micro managed, whether its to do with care homes or protective gear of what we can do and where and when and how. So much is now about our personal lives and behaviour. We have, for example, the repeated mantra about handwashing. Goodness me, we have been reminded so often, since we were little, that we should always wash our hands. It was on every sign in a public toilet “Now wash your hands”. We have been told that our hands are the dirtiest part for our bodies and that it is the most important thing in food hygiene. We’ve known that for years, still, it now needs the government, of all people, to tell us, dirty beggars that we are.
And then we have the quite bizarre advice at a recent briefing that our trips should factor in when we might need to stop for the toilet and the even more bizarre advice for couples living separately, when they could meet up for intimate relations. It makes you realise ‘Gosh, they think we are children’ and they say that they want to treat us like adults! Well I suppose that figures. It’s what we say to children – “Now I want to treat like adults”.
The quite unnecessary and over the top intrusion into personal behaviour follows the intrusion into other aspects of public life and work. Two specific areas where I have involvement, the building industry and the church, demonstrate this so well.
THE BUILDING INDUSTRY
The closure of all building sites by the Scottish Government will, I am sure, turn out to be a monumental disaster for an industry that has never really been all that well organised. Yet I wonder if those who advised on the decision have any clue about what goes on in a building site. Most work is out of doors where the possibility of contacting a virus is almost non-existent. Even when the work is indoors the area is seldom sealed. It is most often open to the elements, with air constantly moving and not the environment favoured by viruses. The real dangers are dust and fumes, falling from heights, electrocution and machinery, the later three which account for the majority of accidents on site. In addition, building contractors have strict controls on health and safety and this is one of the reasons why accidents and deaths have been drastically reduced in the past decades. And, there are trade unions who keep a keen watch on the health conditions of workers. Managers of building sites are then perfectly able to act responsibly and deal sensibly with a crisis of this kind. But no, it needs big government to step in and tell them to close and what they have to do when they re-open.
It’s the same with churches. Many congregations had already put in place sensible precautions and some had cancelled services well before the lock-down was announced. But instead of allowing responsible church administrators to make their own judgements about what action to take, the government had to come in, close the churches and will only allow them to re-opened if certain conditions are met and when “it is safe to do so”. In this crazy new world, it is the government, apparently, who are the arbiters of what is and what isn’t safe. The guidelines themselves, make a mockery of what a church is and what it means to come together to worship God. As with building sites, I suspect that those who have made these decisions have no idea what goes on in a church building.
Thinking through and trying to picture what a phase three “Covid compliant” opening would look like, makes us realise that it will be almost farcical. Some measures are, of course, quite sensible and actions that any responsible organisations would take: such as a high level of regular cleaning of surfaces and hand sanitisers at entrances, but others would be quite disproportionate. Take “Social distancing”, as an example, that creepy Orwellian phrase designed to make quarantine sound palatable. If we hold strictly to this policy, it will cut into just about everything we do and almost every aspect of how we function as a local congregation. It does violence to the whole idea of coming together. There has been suggestion that singing, which increase aerosol range, should be banned and musical instruments too, especially brass and woodwind. Hymnbooks, bibles, psalteries and all books and leaflets would be removed and tea, coffee and mingling quite out of the question. Have we really grasped what this would mean? How can you welcome a visitor across a strict two metre divide? How can you carry out any meaningful pastoral conversation with that invisible chasm between you and the person? How can you really relate, show sympathy, concern, support or effectively listen from behind a mask? How can you build trust when the overriding message is one of fear and mistrust? It just doesn’t work. All the important things we intuitively learn from body language, all the small movements that tell us so much, the posture, the movement of the hands and eye as well as our own attempts to comfort and encourage with the holding of a hand or touching of a shoulder, all of this will be lost.
If it is still our intention to maintain a liberal democracy and cherish freedom then it really is time that government be told, politely but firmly, to stay out of our lives. How we manage our own affairs, how we conduct our lives is none of their business. It is surely also time for business and organisations, churches, schools, clubs and societies to to step up to the plate and remind the government that they have been doing this for some time now, that they do care and that they do know what they are doing. It is time to say “Gives us a break – stick to your job and we will stick to ours.”