A very long time ago, I used to commute into London from a long way out. Sometimes at the end of the working day, I’d find all the trains back home severely delayed or cancelled. Usually, there was little or no information about what was going on, and I would stand there feeling stressed, powerless and just a little bit angry. Apart from out-and-out physical harm, there’s nothing a homo sapiens likes less than uncertainty.
On one occasion, though, it was announced that the delays were due to a cow on the line at Dover. Suddenly my mind had a narrative with which to explain the situation. I had been told the facts, and I could rationalise and explain what was going on around me. It didn’t matter that the cow explanation was a little bizarre – it was truthful, and that in turn meant dramatically reduced stress levels.
In the broader context, the cow on the line means ‘telling it like it is’, however uncomfortable the situation might be. You would rather know that the bad thing happening to you is down to the cow than having no explanation at all, or worse still, let your imagination run riot about things that aren’t actually happening.
Which brings me to the latest Government guidance on Covid tiering. Its recipients, the general public, are struggling to make sense of some of it. Of course, putting together the rule book is a mammoth, unenviable and thankless task, and there will always be some specific set of circumstances that hasn’t been considered, particularly when it comes to cross-tier interactions. But setting out the rules is one thing; explaining them, another.
This is particularly true of hospitality. People are wondering why haircuts are possible, but having a pint in your local isn’t. The rule about pubs and bars only being allowed to open if customers have a ‘substantial meal’ has led some people to question, somewhat tongue in cheek, whether substantial meals themselves have an inoculating effect. Of course, this misunderstands the thinking, and my best guess (corroborated by experts I’ve heard on the radio) is that people sitting down to a meal behave differently to drinkers milling around; the latter have more potential to super-spread. It’s possible I’ve missed it, but it’s difficult to find anywhere where this is explained by an official source.
There’s a very good podcast in which the Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, Professor Heidi Larson, says that the best way of dealing with anti-vaxx sentiment is by the public health community ‘learning how to talk to people of different views’, rather than just telling people what to do. As I argued in an earlier blog, I think the same applies across the broader sphere of public policy.
Some pubs, including our own, splendid local, aren’t naturally configured to serve ‘substantial meals’, but have gone to immense effort and expense to ensure that they are Covid-safe. They’re now crestfallen to be facing renewed restrictions. They need someone to listen to them, sympathetically and in an engaged fashion, and at the very least explain what this is all about.
Time for the Government to be a bit clearer about the cow on the line?