If this is ‘the new normal’, the mixed messages must end

Coronavirus crisis

by Colin Campbell                                                                                                               Monday, April 13

FOR a fair chunk of 2019 we argued here that the definition of officialdom running rampant was a group of council officers meeting behind closed doors and deciding to build a wall and concrete pathways on a beauty spot at the River Ness.

 Our concerns over the Gathering Place (remember that?) were valid then and they remain equally valid now. But times have moved on, haven’t they just.

 And look where we are now.

 We are told why, if not when, we are allowed to leave the house, for what reasons, how often we can go to the shop, and where and what we can do for exercise. Would anyone – even the most crazed conspiracy theorist – have believed a year ago that would happen? Would anyone have believed even two months ago that it could happen?

 But people have adapted and the overwhelming majority accept with due fortitude that because of the coronavirus threat that’s the way it has to be.

Easter 2
Last Easter in what now seems a relaxed and carefree time people gathered in the sunshine for a ‘picnic protest’ at the Gathering Place site.

 But we’ve only been in this situation for three weeks. Restrictions could remain in place for many months, even into next year. For the first time the declaration emerged: This is the new normal.

 If it is indeed to be “the new normal” then some basic instincts from the old normal are certain to re-emerge in the very near future. That will involve a rising insistence on rules and “guidelines” being adequately defined, that they should be based on logic and rationality, and that what seems to be the “make it up as you go along” era should come to an end.

 Different views are flying everywhere over what’s allowed and what isn’t. Some folk believe you’re only allowed out for one hour of exercise a day. But that’s only a guideline, rather than an enforceable regulation. We have politicians like Michael Gove opining – as he did on a recent Andrew Marr TV show – that he “would have thought half an hour or an hour should be adequate for most people”. But Michael Gove offering an opinion off the top of his head is not enshrined in Holy Writ. It merely adds to the confusion.

 And the mixed messages keep on coming. Only a couple of days ago the National Clinical Director, Professor James Leitch, said he wanted to emphasise to the public “that exercise is exercise, not recreation and not your hobby”.

 That was another loose and confusing statement. Going for a walk is exercise, but it’s also recreation, as is jogging and as is cycling. The two are inextricably linked. Is that even arguable? No wonder many people are confused by it all.

An Easter Sunday jogger on a grey day on the canal banks…regular, vigorous exercise is vital for the health and mental wellbeing of many people.

 The chief constable of Northamptonshire, meanwhile, said his officers might begin rummaging through supermarket trolleys to ensure shoppers were only buying “essential items”. He later retracted that but the damage was done. For heaven’s sake, a year on from the Gathering Place idiocy and secrecy, can we believe that that kind of “officialdom run rampant” could become part of life as we now know it.

 And when you hear warnings like that there is a knock-on effect. On Saturday morning I was on Inverness High Street when three police officers appeared from Church Street. They didn’t walk together but fanned out across the pretty empty street like gunfighters at the OK Corral. I half expected to be stopped and routinely questioned as to why I was there, but instead I got a smiling “good morning” from the nearest officer as he walked on by.

 There have been no consistent reports of police here throwing their weight around like it appears they have done in some other parts of the country. That’s the way everyone wants it to continue.

 In many ways we are fortunate to be surrounded by the environment we live in, and the fact that though Inverness is a city, it’s a small one. People can walk by the riverside, they can stroll along the canal banks. And no area of open space is overwhelmed by the number of people desperate to stretch their legs and get a breath of fresh air.

 Nevertheless there must be greater clarity about those rules and guidelines. The level of uncertainty and mixed messages is problematic, and will become even more so as “cabin fever” spreads and summer arrives. But the one certainty is that if people, particularly older people, who have adopted a lifestyle which includes vigorous daily exercise – not just mowing the lawn or walking the dog – feel seriously restricted in what they can do, their physical health will suffer. As will the NHS with even greater pressure exerted on it.

 We don’t want to catch the coronavirus but we don’t want the greatly increased risk of strokes or heart attacks either. No-one can claim it’s easy to sort all this out given the unprecedented crisis we’re living through. But someone at least has to try.

A good day to take the wrapping off

THERE were no outdoor picnics in Inverness on Easter Sunday, other than for those who enjoy an outdoor picnic in pouring rain.

I made the point before that the weather plays a huge part in maintaining morale just now. On bright, sunny days this strange, weird world seems that bit less strange and weird. On wet, dismal days, stuck inside the house, you can all too rapidly become drenched in gloom.

 And it was dismal enough for many on probably one of the most forlorn Easter Sundays ever. No visits to family, no trips to see the grandchildren so they could gorge themselves on Easter eggs.

 From midday onwards Inverness was grim, dour and lifeless. The city centre, in “the new normal”, is so eerily empty when it would formerly have been busy and bustling that I try and avoid going there, other than to the bank.

Eerily empty…Easter in the city centre.

However there’s always the phone. And when I called my own offspring the older grandchild claimed to have eaten five Easter eggs and the younger one said she’d eaten four.

 Their parents are normally quite strict about the intake of chocolate and sweets and so on. Obviously this Easter Sunday, with the kids inside the house all day they decided to take the wraps – or the wrapping – off. And as the rain poured down and the usual Easter Sunday outings of fun and games and laughter seemed a million miles away, I’d say, on this occasion at least, anyone who turned a blind eye to a chocolate feast could be excused the indulgence. The gorging came first. The groaning could be left till later.

Overdue protection for these ‘unsung heroes’

 WHEN all this is over, can NHS stuff expect a big pay rise as a reward for what they’re doing just now, or will the calls urging that rapidly fizzle out and be forgotten? Money will not be on the minds of these folk up and down and country right now. But the people on the frontline are indeed heroes. Never in my reasonably lengthy lifetime has there been so much and such deep admiration for ordinary people waking up every day – often after few enough hours sleep – to enter yet again a dangerous virus-ridden environment.

 Among the other unsung heroes in this crisis are store workers. Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl and the other outlets not only provide their normal service – they also generate a brief feeling of normality.

They may have restrictions and floors criss-crossed with tape but essentially they are  as they always have been, and as of now that familiarity seems rather precious. Because nothing anywhere else with closed or even boarded up pubs and shops everywhere is normal. 

Screens are belatedly in place to protect ‘unsung heroes’, the staff who keep stores running, but how effective are some of them?

 Now screens have gone up at checkouts to protect staff. In some stores this has happened only in the past few days. They were very slow in arriving. That partly removes one of the biggest and most obvious anomalies of the crisis, whereby within the stores customers have been queueing two yards apart and yet the people at the checkouts have been exposed hour after hour to people standing quite close to them.

 But different stores have different types of screens. I’m told screens at the Co-op are considered the best – by staff at other stores. Tesco’s looks rather narrow and flimsy. And the screen at Aldi has a large gap in it for some reason which staff aren’t happy about and which negates much of the protection it supposedly offers. These are not trivial concerns for the people working behind them.

These screens should have been in place much earlier and their design should have been worked out to provide maximum protection for store staff, with any awkwardness in interacting with customers shoved to the back of the queue in terms of priority.

This is no time for a crackdown on dissent

 IN a brief return to business as usual, Inverness councillor Ron MacWilliam has been suspended by the SNP, of which he has been a member for the past 29 years, for criticising the response of the Scottish Government to the coronavirus crisis.

 What a clumsy misjudgement by the party at this time.

 Having looked up his comments on social media, I can’t tell exactly what has offended party chiefs. He is critical of what he sees as inadequacy and a laggard response in some spheres of SNP government activity, but not wildly so. He believes he has a point to make and he has no hesitation in making it. That’s how Ron MacWilliam operates. He doesn’t parse his words and when he gets the bit between his teeth he powers forward and doesn’t bother too much about who in authority he offends.

Ron (2)
Ron MacWilliam…no time for the SNP to start targeting critics.

 He has fallen out with the hierarchy at Highland Council – leader Margaret Davidson last year tried in a written letter/censure  to “call him to account”, without any success – and now the SNP hierarchy is bearing down on him, promising to subject him to a disciplinary hearing.

 We have more important things to think about than internal SNP disputes right now. But this one does add to the perception that party chiefs are unduly harsh on any dissension within the ranks. Ron MacWilliam is a local councillor and nothing he says is going to shake the SNP to its foundations. So why use sledgehammer tactics against him, especially now?

 Neither has he been a critic from the sidelines. He has poured effort into work he’s doing for a coronavirus support group in Inverness and if feelings run high amid the tension and anxiety of these extraordinary times then so be it. This is just not the time for the SNP to heavy-handedly target a member with whom, for whatever reason, they happen to be displeased.

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