July 8. Late yesterday afternoon, as the rain clouds were beginning to obscure the Welsh hills, the phone rang. It was Catherine from Shropshire Council, calling me because I was on the NHS list of those shielding from the coronavirus. She had three questions.
The first related to the announcement that from the end of the month, the shielded were no longer to receive their weekly food boxes. Could I cope with this? I told her that I would not go hungry. I had stopped the delivery of the boxes some weeks ago and was being supplied by supermarket home delivery. Nonetheless, I was impressed by her concern. When last did the government take a decision that might cause you harm, say a reduced service or an increased tax, and then ring you up and ask if you minded about it? This is a good precedent.
The second was whether my house was fitted with a smoke alarm. I was puzzled by the question, but then wondered if the lengthening list of coronavirus symptoms now includes spontaneous combustion. You will recall that this was the misfortune that befell the alcoholic rag and bone merchant Mr. Krook in Bleak House. Dickens insisted that he had documentary evidence that such a death could occur, and there has been debate about it ever since. I assured Catherine that we had two alarms and she seemed pleased with the answer.
The third was whether I would like the number of the newly established ‘Community Reassurance Team Hotline.’ I was entranced by the prospect.
‘Hotline’ perhaps not so much. Since the term was introduced to the English lexicon, referring to the dedicated line American and Russian Presidents use to try to prevent a nuclear war breaking out, as in Dr Strangelove, the word has lost much of its urgency. Every over-stretched public or commercial body offers such a service in order to keep clients and customers at bay. A ‘coldline’ is a number which you ring, is never answered, but it doesn’t matter. A ‘hotline’ is a number which is never answered, but it does matter.
‘Community’ is more promising. Although, like hotline, it has lost much of its meaning in recent years, it is enjoying a renaissance in the pandemic. The local Parish News has just resumed its monthly delivery. It has a centre spread of all the services being performed across a distributed rural population of some 800 people. Twelve separate activities are mentioned, too many to list here, but they range from ‘those who kept in contact with people living alone and/or self-isolating’ to ‘everyone who shopped and collected medical supplies for those unable to go out’ [which includes our neighbours collecting our prescriptions] to ‘the Groves who have made the Montford pond area a delightful wild life oasis and a resting spot for walkers and riders’. This is real.
‘Team’ is good. If the helpful Catherine is relocated to the parking fines division, it is comforting to know that a multi-skilled group of officers stands ready to continue the service.
But ‘Reassurance’ is the prize. No official body has ever offered me this.
I need reassurance that my children will keep their health and their jobs, and that I will recognise my grandchildren when next I see them. I need reassurance that the shops, restaurants, theatres, cinemas that I once enjoyed will still be there when I go out. I need reassurance that when I do mix in company, it will not immediately constitute a lethal threat to my health (see ‘shielded’ above). I need reassurance that the apparent incompetence of every level of English government above the local is a mirage that will dissolve in the summer sun.
And now all I have to do is pick up the phone to get it. But only in Shropshire. I’m sorry for the rest of you.