Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Currency of Absurdity



When is the last time you had a guest inside your home, you gave them a cup of tea and a biscuit, perhaps watched some TV together, and then when they left you thought “Oh, they were nice. I wonder who that was?”.

Apparently it happens all the time. At least, the peculiar operation of the new lockdown policy for most of Strathclyde is predicated on that belief.

Today I may not go and visit my son Jamie in his home in Glasgow. I can however meet up with him in a pub or restaurant in Glasgow, surrounded by dozens of other people, which is, we are told, safer. The main reason it is safer is that, in the event of somebody there having covid-19, the restaurant or pub will have been given our contact details. Whereas if we had met not in the pub but in Jamie’s home, apparently it would have been much more difficult for track n trace people to get the contact details, because obviously, unlike the restaurant, Jamie and I have no idea how to contact each other.

There are two glaring absurdities of this strand of argument.

The first is the presumption that whereas people have imperfect knowledge of who has been in their homes, bars and restaurants have perfect knowledge. Because of course nobody can have given wrong contact details to the pub, by muddle or by ill-will. I would counter that the occasions when people do not know who is in their own home are far rarer than occasions when the pub does not have accurate contact details for everybody in it.

The second is that the group in the pub has only had to give a single contact for the group, not everybody’s contact details. So actually track n trace is precisely as reliant on the host or organiser knowing everyone else’s contact details in the pub or restaurant as they would be had the meeting been in the home.

The third is that if someone of the 100 people in the pub through the course of that day and the next had later tested positive for covid-19, Jamie and I would have to be track n traced had we been there. Whereas if we had never been to the pub at all, but just had a quiet cup of tea in his home, we would never have come in potential contact with covid 19 and had to be traced. And if either he or I had been the carrier, that is 98 less people who would have had to be contact traced if we hadn’t been forced to meet in a pub rather than at home.

The Scottish Government’s other argument for it being safer to meet in a pub than at home is that pubs and restaurants have social distancing and hygiene measures in place, whereas homes do not.

This is perfectly true. Just like airports have runway lights in place, but homes do not. Because planes do not land in homes. If I visit Jamie in his flat, there will probably have been a total of three or four people in that flat all week. As opposed to visiting a pub or restaurant which has a total footfall of hundreds through that space. It is patently untrue that the risk of contracting coronavirus is higher in the private than in the public indoor space. I am perfectly capable of washing my hands without a pub sign telling me I have to. Contact with the traces of 600 less people is a large advantage to nullify by a sign and some sanitiser.

The truth is that the ban on people visiting homes in and around Glasgow, while the pubs, restaurants and shops are all open, is simply absurd from any practical standpoint.

The underlying truth is, that what the Scottish Government is seeking to say is that there appears some indication of spread of covid-19 through people holding parties – raucous parties with drinking and dancing, and loads of people attending, some of whom the host does not know who thus cannot be contacted – in the Glasgow area. In that specific situation, the arguments of the Scottish Government do make sense. Yes, there is obviously a chance of spreading coronavirus at such party gatherings. Yes, there may be people at such gatherings who cannot subsequently be traced.

But what percentage of occasions when people enter other people’s homes, is for the purpose of such a party? It is not an easy question to answer. My best shot would be about 1 in every 5,000 visits to enter someone else’s home is for a party of that description.

Simply to ban the other 4,999 home visits on entirely spurious grounds that people do not know who is visiting them, and that they are insanitary, is an absurd example of taking a sledgehammer to crack a grain of pollen. Ban parties. Ban indoor gatherings of more than ten people, or people from more than two or three households, however you wish to define it. There are plenty of situations where the law already defines parties – they are banned in plenty of tenancies, and the law is very used to having to judge what is disorderly.

Auntie Jean visiting Auntie Effie for tea is not the problem here.

A situation where I can visit with my son in a pub, but not in his home, is stupid to the point of surreal.

But what is truly worrying is the adverse reaction I received in the early hours of the morning on Twitter to pointing this out. An absolute avalanche of tweets arrived in reply, each one parroting exactly the two Scottish government arguments – that pubs have better visitor contact details than homes, that pubs have better social hygiene than homes. These are arguments which the world’s dimmest marsupial would perceive as rubbish given ten seconds independent thought, but they were trotted out as religious liturgy by the faithful:

Now few people can be happier than me at the much greater public trust in Holyrood than in Westminster on handling covid-19 (although that dim-witted marsupial would have done a better job than Boris Johnson: at least they would be unlikely to be primarily focused on making hundreds of millions in corrupt contracts for their mates). The trust that Nicola has built up is a very good thing, and hopefully she intends to spend that credit in the cause of Independence in the near future.

But people should never trust politicians – any politician – too much. When it reaches the stage that people react angrily and defensively to any criticism of government measures, that is not healthy for democracy. One problem is that fear is a very powerful tool for a politician. Fear of coronavirus is such that heavy-handed, blunderbuss measures will always be supported, even when like this Glasgow lockdown they make no sense in detail.

I perfectly understand why people might wish to shut down their critical thinking faculties in this coronavirus situation and put absolute faith in an authority they trust. I have myself refrained from any criticism of lockdown measures before now, because I recognise that those in charge are grappling with complex problems to which there is no perfect answer, and with better access to facts than I have. But I still reserve the right to point out the absolutely absurd.

The banning of meeting in Glasgow except in the presence of a till is absurd.

By all means suspend your critical faculties, but do not turn on those who have not.


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