Passport to Pestilence

Why can’t the government highlight changes to their guidance documents?

Artillery Row

The wonderful 1949 Ealing Studios film Passport to Pimlico includes a scene in which the present-day heir to the Dukedom of Burgundy visits Pimlico (in central London) following the discovery that, due to an historical quirk, it is actually part of Burgundy. 

He falls for a local girl, with whom he discusses the Government’s recent appeal to the people of London to avoid the newly-independent Pimlico, where post-war rationing laws no longer apply. He comments “You know, your England is a most remarkable nation. Everywhere else, governments command, scream, shout, but here it just has to ask people politely to stay away and they do.” At which point the window of the room is thrown open to let in the roar of a crowd gathered in defiance of the Government’s request.

In some ways the film represents a sort of anti-type of Britain in the Age of Coronavirus. These plucky Londoners have survived the worst that the Luftwaffe could throw at them and are not going to be brow-beaten into passing up a golden opportunity to throw off the shackles of post-war austerity. This appears to contrast with the way, seventy years on, there is reluctance to embrace the gradual lifting of the recent quarantines and curfews. Opinion polls seem to show that, for some people at least, the lockdown was not so much an unfortunate but sadly necessary emergency measure, as something to be positively embraced for as long as possible.

Much media commentary reflects a similar attitude. The Great Pestilence is often portrayed as the result of humanity’s bad behaviour, and we are exhorted not to dream of returning to anything other than a “new” normal. This would be a sort of technologically-enabled semi-agrarian paradise in which human aspirations were sublimated into a greater good. (Usually missing is any sense of a need for that individual moral responsibility which – for previous generations of Millenarian prophets – would have been the main question.) 

But the situations are not really comparable. After all, Stanley Holloway, Raymond Huntley, Margaret Rutherford and the other members of the film’s extraordinary cast are not faced with a deadly new virus. Whereas in 2020, the people of the United Kingdom have (quite understandably) been alarmed by a highly effective public health campaign. 

And the 1949 film is anyway more subtle than it first appears. Tibby Clarke’s script depicts a complicated, at times farcical, but in the end successful dialogue between the citizens of Pimlico and the representatives of central Government (Messrs Gregg and Straker, played by the peerless Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). Consultative machinery is set up to allow discussion and debate. The tone of the process is summed up in the quote “We always were English and always will be English and it’s just because we are English that we’re sticking up for our right to be Burgundian!” Pimlico is ultimately peacefully re-absorbed into the United Kingdom, ration cards and all. 

Such a rational dialogue has not been much in evidence over the last few months. Media coverage has occasionally verged on the less-than-hinged, exemplified by the theatrical questions asked by journalists at the Government’s press conferences. Parliament has, naturally enough, been disinclined to subject successive waves of emergency legislation to lengthy scrutiny. Since March, the Government has communicated with the population of the United Kingdom more-or-less as if it were a regulated entity. 

This is not the end of the world. I have some experience of representing regulated companies in their dealings with central Government and with regulators. The relationship is usually characterised by discussion of the likely impact of specific new rules, including the areas of inconsistency, the costs and benefits, the disproportionate effects in some sectors, and so on. Often, this results in marginal improvements and at least means that the regulated companies understand what is likely to be expected of them.

And here we have the problem. As a churchwarden, I have some shared responsibility for ensuring that my church and its associated enterprises are managed in a manner compliant with Government epidemic-related guidance. This means I currently have to monitor Government guidance on: which venues may open; the use of places of worship (supplemented by separate Church guidance on the same issue); frequently asked questions; activities outside the home; the respective powers of local and central government; indoor sport and recreation; the use of community facilities; face coverings; social distancing; working safely; and out-of-school activities for children. 

This list is by no means exhaustive. Each is a separate document, amended frequently. All are connected by a web of embedded links. The language on the same issue often varies subtly from one to another. And – unlike the situation for regulated companies when new rules are published – while we are told the guidance has been updated to reflect additional requirements on x, or a new section on y – there is no way of checking exactly what the differences are without going through each document and comparing it, line for line, with the previous edition. This can take hours a day.

So here is a very modest plea to Her Majesty’s Government: I do not ask for independence for Pimlico; I recognise that in current circumstances very much debate in advance of new rules is impracticable; but could you perhaps highlight the changes in your guidance documents? Gregg and Straker would have seen the point. 

Floreat Burgundia!

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