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Author: Roy Noble, Bevan Commissioner

Published: June 05, 2020

Another day, another queue. It was a small one, I’m told, just outside a pharmacy in Aberdare. Over the weeks of Covid-19 queues have featured large in this parallel universe we seem to be travelling through at present.

The queue, of course, is not a British invention and was not exported as a typical example and expression of the British way of life. It is, however, truly an invention attributed to a Danish engineer over 100 years ago, who calculated, using a mathematical formula, how many lines and operators were needed for an efficient queuing system for the lines of callers. A less formal queue, is attributed to the French, some years before the Danes, when Parisians formed a line to queue for bread during the food shortages at the latter end of, and just after, the French Revolution. Many years later, an even less formal queue was arranged by Danny the Butcher of Brynaman, a local character, who had the habit, if there was a queue of customers in his shop, of serving the first and the last customers first, under the argument that, if not acknowledged, the last customer might leave. Those in the middle of the line seemed to accept the quirky tradition.

That era reminds me of the queue or line my mother had in place when we visited Swansea for a ‘ big shop’ day. First off, it was a call in the famed Swansea Market, no roof in place after the wartime bombing, then a ride on the Mumbles Railway , as a treat for me and thirdly, as a treat for her, a visit to the Windsor Café for lunch . Other cafes were available, but the Windsor, for Mam, was special, in that the waitresses wore smart black and white uniforms, they served proper pots of tea, one of them fancied my Uncle Thomas and the fish and chips came with bread and butter.

The British then, did not invent the queue, nor are we best at it, Welsh included apparently. Other countries edge us down the league table. Examples to prove British frailties in queuing, often occur at busy times in cities when a bus does not stop with the door level to the front of the queue, it becomes a free for all. Also, queuing, in line, at an airport loading gate would descend into chaos when an announcement was suddenly made that the flight was leaving from another gate. The resultant wild scene was reminiscent of the famed image of the last helicopter out of Saigon in the Vietnam war. However, two recent scenes redress that balance. This summer brought the 80th anniversary of Dunkirk. The television archive scenes of British soldiers, holding the lines on the beaches, in the face of constant attack, was moving, impressive and something to behold. It exuded immense pride in their stoicism and a heart felt poignancy at their discipline.

Away from war, to the modern day, and the immense threat of the Coronavirus pandemic, I feel that there is pride and poignancy on seeing the scenes of disciplined queuing at supermarkets, at small shops, at pharmacies that are prevalent these days. There is a sense of regard for our fellow human beings, there is compassion. There is decency and fair play . There is democracy. If you are in those queues, there is also conversation, albeit at a social distance. Conversation, common sense and genuine query as to how the directives have worked. It’s anecdotal, but research never the less. Where were the strengths, the weaknesses ? There were high spots, like the performance of those in the front line of the NHS, those in the vulnerable, to the point of scandal, Care Sector, the support services that kept the fabric of society intact and the heart warming, new relationships, friendships and voluntary work in safeguarding the vulnerable within communities. Extra-ordinary, spirit-lifting behaviour.

Other subjects thrown into the mix, on various occasions, had relevance and reasoned common sense in the queries: “Why were we so short of PPE? Why weren’t the offers of such material, produced, home-based in this country, taken up? Why was tracing and tracking so slow? If the restrictions planned at Heathrow were to safeguard against a second spike, why were they not there for the first spike of the disease? How did Greece, with its severe economic strains in recent years, do so well, as did Slovakia, a small country like Wales… was it because their lockdowns were swift? What was the logic behind how the Care Sector was treated, or initially, disregarded? If the constant mantra of ‘ we are following the science’ , was gospel, was the entire Sage group in agreement, or should the mantra have been,’ we are following , not the science, but a science?”

These points, all valid and made in genuine concern, passed on during chats with friends and fellow travellers, who are free to exercise, once a day, or in telephone conversations under the ‘keep in touch’ or ‘ give someone a call’ initiatives to maintain personal links. Hindsight is, of course 20/20 vision, but the inter-linked trio of hindsight, insight and foresight form a process of learning. If you don’t truly learn from history, it will be repeated… and will we be ready for it ? One comment was particularly pertinent.

“This pandemic is new, little is known of it, so mistakes will inevitably be made . What would be more acceptable is for someone of responsibility and authority, saying, honestly…’ I’ll hold my hand up , we got that wrong”. It would be respected so much more than waffle, which makes the commentator and the viewer, I have to say, uncomfortable.

I’m privileged to be a commissioner with the Bevan Commission; It was set up by the Welsh Government, but is independent of it and its remit is to monitor, vet, view and assess the effectiveness of the Health and Care sectors in Wales. The Commission is made up of clinicians, practicing and retired, senior management in health sectors, academics, ex-patients and members of the general public. It is a think tank, which has attained international respect and recognition. Above all, it is there to serve the people of Wales.

In life we all are touched by the Health and Care sectors in one way or another and the Commission is there to listen, to listen to everyone, in experience and suggestion. All inputs are welcome, from everyone. This will secure paths into the future that can be recognised, agreed and developed, for the benefit of the health and care sectors within our nation. Inevitably, the pressures on health and care will encroach on other aspects of communities, society and the needs of the individual. The strains of loneliness, loss of work, loss of motivation, uncertainty, lack of self- esteem and self- worth, will all endanger mental health. In fact, all aspects of life and living will have been severely tested and, possibly, changed forever.

The Bevan Commission, in debate and action, will encompass all considerations, facets, evidence, hindsight, insight, foresight and plain common sense, in suggesting to government a way forward. I am a fan of reason and common sense being brothers in arms or action. In fact, I once ventured to suggest that the Welsh Government should create a world first in forming a Common Sense committee. There are countless numbers whom I’ve met who would be admirable members. The people of Wales and the UK have shown resilience, fortitude, courage and resolve.

The Bevan Commission recognises this and when a suggested template is built and put forward by the Commission, as guardians of the well- being of the people of Wales, they will deserve nothing less than reasoned, constructive co-operation and vigorous response to their deliberations… research moving to resolution, persuasion moving to practice.

So, to return to the image with which I started, queuing. Each time I see it, in patience and acceptance, it is in my mind, a manifestation and symbol of democracy at work, permanent proof that we are following the directives given, along with social distancing and self- isolation. The vast majority of people are reasonable and sensible. My conversations with so many were, of course, informal, but it was real research never the less. They deserve to have their co-operation and actions respected by the country’s elected representatives and by those in their departments, across party political lines.

The public deserve that and any hint at selective disregard will undermine their trust.