June 15th, 2020
In which I travel on public transport for the first time in 90 days to spend a day in London, unfortunately find it a depressing and dreary experience dominated by excessive signs, posters, stickers, one way systems and high visibility clothing, and reflect on how our ancestors would view our inability to tolerate or manage personal risk.
It’s Tuesday (16th June) and I need to visit London for the first time since being confined to barracks on March 18th, some 90 days absence. To re-open my office building I need to conduct a formal risk assessment, following the UK Government guidance on COVID-19 protection. Fortunately, we own our office building, so I am not going to be dependent upon Landlords and other tenants to assess the risk – it should be relatively straightforward. What a surreal, and ultimately, very depressing experience visiting London turns out to be.
On arrival at my train station in Ipswich I am stopped from entering by two staff wearing large yellow high visibility jackets (these jackets are the much loved symbols, mainly in the public sector, of unquestionable officialdom in the UK). I am told to put on a face mask. I politely explain the law is for face masks to be worn on public transport, so I will put my mask on when I am on the train. No – the train company’s interpretation of the law is masks must be worn when I am on their property. So, I reluctantly acquiesce and put on my mask and enter the fearful new world of contagion. Hmm, there is no one here in the Station. I purchase my ticket, move through the barriers and out onto the platform. The nearest person is some 50 yards away – there are in fact only 4 people on 200 yards of platform. There are signs everywhere, in windows, on walls, spray painted on the ground, about keeping 2 metres apart. It all seems a bit excessive.
My train arrives and I cautiously enter the carriage wondering what horrors will await. None – the carriage is empty. I am now perspiring inside my face mask due to the heat, so remove it to dry my face. There are, of course, no staff working on the train (or if there are they are in hiding), so I spend my hour working quietly, made more challenging by my glasses fogging up from the face mask.
Arrival in London – the concourse at Liverpool Street Station is a sea of high visibility jackets and vests – not just yellow but pink as well. Perhaps there is some form of high visibility hierarchy previously unknown to me? I stopped counting at 20 such clad staff, all standing around around in some form of grid system, apparently designed to lead me through a human one way system to the Underground. Not really necessary and the 3 of us on the concourse managed to socially distance from each other without high visibility assistance. I noticed half the staff are wearing their masks incorrectly, not covering their noses – fine example to the rest of us perspiring law abiding citizens. But, you do not argue with a high visibility clad person in London.
Onto the Underground. Again, only 1 person on the platform, and when I enter my train I am at least 10 yards away from anyone – why then a mask? Oh well, on we head to west London.
I had an enjoyable day in my office, catching up with my EA and sitting through a couple of video conferences. I completed the risk assessment and declared the office COVID-19 compliant and safe for the staff to return when ready.
At 4.30 pm I decided to visit central London on my journey home. I am missing my old stomping ground of Mayfair and St James, and was keen to see throngs of people, familiar shops, to help reassure me that life was still relatively orderly. Out at Green Park station (Hyde Park Corner was closed) and an eerie silence in Piccadilly. Nobody around, very little traffic, most shops still shut. I walked along to Fortnum and Mason to purchase some coffee and marmalade. Inside I counted 14 staff, and just 4 customers. Although this made shopping at Fortnums a strangely easy experience for once, I missed the throngs of people and the heady atmosphere.
Those shops that are open all have signs about social distancing, black and yellow hazard warning tape is everywhere, 2 metres separation signs outside shops, ‘Please Queue Here’ signs. Wow, sign overload. Are we so subservient now we are incapable to work out for ourselves what 2 metres is, or how to walk pass someone without a one way system?
Back on the Piccadilly Line I needed to change at Kings Cross for the Hammersmith and City Line to Liverpool Street. This is normally a quick 3 minute walk between platforms. Not today! For ‘my safety and protection’ I had to follow a one way system, which took me virtually around the whole of Kings Cross underground, hot and perspiring in my face mask, a journey of some 13 minutes. Surely, the objective here should be to get people in and out of confined space as quickly as possible – instead I just spent 4 times longer than normal in the station. I wonder if the ‘safety people’ are ever truly accountable to someone for these ridiculous decisions they make.
On the train home to Ipswich I had another carriage to myself, so it made it easier to keep removing my mask to drink water to rehydrate after my Kings Cross heated experience.
Back home. Hot, bothered, frustrated, and fed up with the sight of black and yellow tape and the words ‘social distancing’ and ‘keep 2 metres apart’. Hand wash needed and then time for a restorative Negroni!
I have no desire to head back into London, despite missing my staff and our camaraderie, until some sense of normality is resumed, some air of common sense taking control again, and the public being treated as adults and allowed to self-manage the risk. How dreary and depressing this all is. As my 83 year old Mother says, “there is little fun in this, it is not living, it is existing. Who wants to spend their life like this?” Certainly we need to treat the virus with care, but it cannot be allowed any longer to dictate our lives, destroy our economy and tear out the heart of our social fabric.
I wonder what Drake, Raleigh, Cook, Nelson, Clive, Wellington, Livingstone, Gordon, great men and leaders from our history, who took huge, daily, personal risks to explore the World and make the UK a centre of tolerant democracy and freedom would make of all this?
Perhaps they would have rejected setting off on their travels, wearing high visibility jackets and clutching their risk assessments, and just stayed in bed, succumbing to levels of Orwellian State control many of us never believed we would see in our lifetimes. On a more light hearted note, if they had never taken those risks (and stayed at home) we would not have built statues to remember and honour them – that would save elements of today’s generation from the trouble of having to want to demolish them!