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Thoughts on sinking or swimming through 2020

April 19, 2020

Meet Mike. Mike swims like a fish.¹

Public information films were a constant of my 1970s childhood.  Some I can still quote (see above). With others  what wasn’t said or shown left the greater impression: if you too grew up in a farming area in this period decades later you may still recoil at the words “slurry pit”, even if you have never seen one.

In the discussion of what happens over the rest of this year, there is much talk about how and when people will be allowed greater freedoms. Perhaps schools will re-open before other things, or masks may be compulsory. The focus is on the content of policy to come.

Since the start of offical restrictions, I have done all our food shopping, applying a calculation that the other adult in the house is older and male and therefore more at risk.  Without exception, these trips to the supermarket have required ninja skills to avoid being within one metre, let alone two, of anyone else no more than once every few minutes. Whatever I had done, other than walk out of the shop (which I have, once) it would have been impossible to get well down the shopping list without multiple close encounters of the unchosen kind.

Having now found a time and place which seems to be predictably very quiet, last time out I still reckon that I had to swerve, reverse or (with no space to move) just put up with someone coming within a few feet between 10 and 20 times over perhaps 20-25 minutes.  That excludes the aisles I didn’t go down because someone was standing right in the middle having a long think.  It’s true that one man and his  son were giving a good demonstration of Brownian motion wherever they happened to be, but they were not alone. My rough calculation is that up to a third of people were somewhere between  largely oblivious and possibly even (just going by demeanour) resentful of physical distancing rules.

I’ve seen a lot of praise from government for how well people are observing the “stay at home” message. It’s less clear, not just from my own experience but from what I see on social media, that the message that how you behave while you are out can be equally life-saving has sunk in equally well.  I could at this point mention the footage from Westminster Bridge last week.

Yet whenever and however restrictions are loosened, how well physical distancing is observed looks likely to be critical to how far and how long allowing people more freedom of movement can be sustained without provoking a further spike in infection and potential re-tightening of the rules, and along the way avoidable deaths.

The time to get people absorbing a message about keeping their distance and acquiring new habits is not when any rules are loosened, but now, before they are.  Perhaps government has its own intelligence suggesting these rules are better understood and observed than assumed here. Perhaps Cameron Toll and Straiton in Edinburgh are particular hotbeds of distance-denial. I am doubtful, though.

When the time comes we will not always be able observe a 2m distance. Our pavements are too narrow, and as roads get busier, walking in the road will become much more dangerous (of course, there is also a movement for temporary road closures). Our buildings are not routinely designed with such wide corridors. But risk management is about risk reduction, not risk elimination. Wherever there is space, it needs to be used and where there isn’t, people still need to do what they can. But this will not work if more than a very small proportion of people do not join in: it does not take many free spirits to crash through everyone else’s efforts here.

The law is not much use for this, I think. A regulation requiring a blanket 2m distance would be hugely impractical, even if we were all issued with giant crinolines. Put in caveats about “where possible” and it becomes hard to enforce. Perhaps some obligation could be placed on employers to make reasonable arrangements for distancing their staff.  But for the general population out and about what is needed is a new Mike.

The public information message has been very strong on #StayHome.  But we also need #KeepBack (or whatever) and we need that well before any rules are loosened, emphatically and inescapably.  Governments need to research urgently what is going on with the people who seem to be finding this hardest to do, whether they fit any particular demographic, and target them hard. Maybe many of the people who seem to me to be radiating a low level sense of fury at any disruption to their normality are in fact just scared or preoccupied.  Maybe others think they are doing the right thing and just have no idea what these distances mean. I wonder about any public message involving any figure, even just “2”, in a world where a distressing number of people appear actively frightened of numbers.

We have a whole advertising industry which exists to do behavioural influencing, employing very clever people.  If loosening the current rules is accompanied by a minority of people grasping with relief the chance to behave as though everything is completely back to normal, we are likely to spend longer in cycles of release and restrict, and the overall economic hit is likely to be harder. It is in the interest of the advertising industry to put its talent at the service of avoiding this.

However and whenever things change, learning to keep our distance from each other as much as possible outside our own homes is going to be part of the making this work as well as it can and a necessary part of how we live perhaps for quite a long time to come.  It will save lives. Perhaps more vulnerable people will not need to be so restricted for so long.  Like handwashing, this is an issue for public education, not law, and the time for that is as soon as possible.  If the achievement of physical distancing is left to current levels of public information,  whenever the rules are loosened, I reckon my current ninja supermarket shopping will feel like a walk in a heavily-policed park by comparison.  Unless they know for sure that what’s evident in south Edinburgh is exceptional, it looks as though governments need to get to work on influencing our behaviour harder on this now, to monitor it, and to take into account how well we are doing in deciding what to do and when.  On this, we will sink or swim together.



¹ It’s very 70s. You have been warned.



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