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Coronavirus social distance-shaming merely sacrifices otherwise blameless individuals on the altar of hypocrisy

Don Anderson


Are high-profile resignations more or less significant than what happened on the Aer Lingus flight from Belfast to London, asks Don Anderson

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The packed Aer Lingus flight

The packed Aer Lingus flight

Neil Ferguson. Image courtesy of the BBC

Neil Ferguson. Image courtesy of the BBC

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Mike Nesbitt

Mike Nesbitt

Catherine Calderwood

Catherine Calderwood

The packed Aer Lingus flight

What are rules and laws for? It may be thought that, if you have to ask such a question, you are desperately in need of rules and laws to abide by.

I began to wonder about the status apportioned to rules when people like Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling of the progress of coronavirus suggested 250,000 people could die without forceful action like lockdown, had to resign, because he had supposedly undermined the social-distancing laws.

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Catherine Calderwood

Catherine Calderwood

Catherine Calderwood

So did Catherine Calderwood, Scotland's Northern Ireland-born Chief Medical Officer, because she had broken the rules. And, on our own doorstep, we had the resignation of Mike Nesbitt from an important Stormont committee, because he,too had transgressed.

Mike Nesbitt

All have a public profile and have been severely criticised - publicly pilloried - because of what were deemed unnecessary journeys during the emergency.

So, another question about the rules leapt to mind: did these resignations in any way help in the fight against this disease? In my view, they did not.

On the contrary, they may have impeded it by removing good people from influential positions to sacrifice on the altar of public hypocrisy

As far as I know, their transgressions involved travel, isolated in a car, from point to point, without contact with third parties. It was contact between healthy adults in a private situation, which turned out not to be private, unfortunately for them.

The threat to anyone else, or to the spread of the virus, was possibly less than a fully socially-distanced, fully lawful, visit to a supermarket or chemist.

In the classic, wonderfully funny parody of schoolbook history entitled 1066 And All That, the authors WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman present a spoof test paper, inviting candidates to compare, contrast and explore the following question. Here goes.

Question: Is what those three people in the public eye did more or less significant than what featured in the photograph taken on board an Aer Lingus flight from Belfast to London?

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Neil Ferguson. Image courtesy of the BBC

Neil Ferguson. Image courtesy of the BBC

PA

Neil Ferguson. Image courtesy of the BBC

That photograph showed perhaps 100 passengers packed close enough to fight over an armrest.

Aer Lingus put their hand up and confessed transgression, but nobody on that aircraft, or within Aer Lingus, has resigned from anything and I'm not expecting such action. Nor would I want resignations, because, again, they would be utterly futile.

Health Minister Robin Swann declared he was shocked by the photograph. The rules say that people-packing is not allowed, but I think those passengers were going to permitted work on a Monday morning the only way they could.

And will putting another aircraft on the route make a meaningful difference? No matter what, the pilot and co-pilot have to sit next to each other, talk to each other and breathe over each other.

Or should one of them hang about in the toilet outside the cockpit until needed? And, then, could he get past the locked door?

Some common sense came from Brian Ambrose, George Best Belfast City Airport's chief executive, who stated the blindingly obvious: "You can't keep people two metres apart in an aeroplane. You are in a closed environment, where there is a mixing of air."

According to an interviewed aviation expert, not all, but much, of the atmosphere within a pressurised aircraft is re-circulated, so social distancing to totally avoid someone else's breath is scarcely possible.

I am not arguing that the rules are a nonsense, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that, as time goes on, the application of the rules can be arbitrarily applied to the point of being counter-productive.

Is the ordinary citizen with no garden spreading pandemic if he piles his dog into his car and drives some miles to an open space to socially-distance exercise himself and the mutt? Or is that open space de facto only available to those within walking distance of it? If so, why?

Why is it tacitly permitted, on public safety grounds, to get on a train, or a bus, and travel miles in the company of strangers, but not do so in a car by yourself, or the people you are sharing a home with?

It appears that the amount of road traffic in Northern Ireland is proportionately greater than elsewhere on these islands. That may be the manifestation of the capacity of Ulster people to disregard rules they do not respect, something which has been both a blessing and a curse. But sometimes it is merely the application of common sense.

There are rules and more rules. When President Trump, studious adherent to the rules, boards a helicopter on the White House lawn, it is a Sikorsky. Igor Sikorsky is the father of the helicopter, if you cast aside Leonardo da Vinci's notional sketch of the concept.

Referring to early aviation towards the beginning of the last century, he said: "We were ignorant and we were ignorant of the fact that we were ignorant."

In sympathy with those laying down the rules, the same applies to those in authority, coping with the rotten mess we are in.

It isn't a surprise that some of the rules hastily cobbled together do not cover all eventualities. It is more of a surprise that they cover as much as they do - and they are being modified, slowly, in the light of experience.

According to legend, Sikorsky, who had to overcome much scepticism as he tried various helicopter designs, had a plaque on his office wall about a rule. It read: "According to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee can't fly, but the bumblebee doesn't know the laws of aerodynamics, so it goes ahead and flies." The man had a cubbyhole for rules.

Maybe we all need such a cubbyhole for rules, recognising that one size is clearly not fitting all and, in the pursuit of compassion towards fellow sufferers, stop hounding worthwhile people who are as human as the rest of us.

Their contribution to our well-being easily outweighs their minor mistakes.

Belfast Telegraph