Comment

Getting us to report on each other is appealing to the worst of human nature

We already saw nosy neighbours during lockdown - the arrival of Covid marshals is a step too far

Nosy neighbours having a gossip
There's a certain type of nosy neighbour who will volunteer to be a Covid marshal Credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Image Contributor

As the government dreams of Covid marshals to save the citizenry from itself I wonder what will offer the better outcome: a bungling army of pandemic monitors or an efficient regiment of pandemic monitors? With one we will have more freedom; with another we will have more pandemic. I recuse myself. I was a mouse monitor at primary school, and they all died of brain tumours.

I know exactly what kind of person will offer themselves to the state for a uniform and a biscuit: the supporting villain from Paddington 2, who enjoyed setting up roadblocks, and tried to send Paddington back to the prison he had reconfigured as a Patisserie. I had my own encounter with a potential-future pandemic monitor under lockdown. They come in a legion of guises. You can never tell.

Under lockdown I chose to enter a bubble with another family who have an only child - as we do. It was against the regulations, but I chose my child’s mental health over the regulations; and I would again. I was not prepared to make him endure a long period without seeing another child. I did not want solitude to be his first memory.

I invited the other child to stay with us, and she came, but she was too young to manage it. She lay in our spare room and cried for her grandmother, who came to collect her an hour before the lockdown was declared.

We continued to see her – and no one else. (Her family did the same). We bicycled, walked and played in the sea; a local psychiatrist said it was the best thing for them.

Then we were caught. We were paddling at Mousehole – not against the regulations, but the RNLI had advised against entering the sea – and a woman approached and announced, “I wish I could swim in the sea with my family”. I said, “Why don’t you then?” and she replied she would call the police, having nothing better to do, it being pandemic. The police called the coastguard, who arrived as we were leaving the village. The coastguard wear their authority more lightly. They waved at us.

I wrote about it on Facebook: “the police were called as I was paddling with the children”. I was expecting, if not support, then identification. But one local mother, who has obviously not read Martha Gellhorn’s essay Eichmann and the Private Conscience (it names the private conscience the only reliable protection against tyranny) was enraged. She pointed out that I had said, “children”, plural, but I only had one child, singular – so what was I doing? Who was I with? What was her name?

She was pleased, she added, that the police were called as we paddled, dangerously, in ten inches of water. She typed out a series of clapping emoticons: a standing ovation for the police. I was tempted to forward it to them.

In return, I pointed out that, considering the amount of marijuana she smokes – often in public – she perhaps shouldn’t be too keen to live in a society where people spuriously call the police on their neighbours, for who knows where it will end? I thought it was a fair point – I think the drug laws are ridiculous and put the majority in peril to soothe the minority – but it was not, apparently, the thing to say.

It dulled the lustre of her righteous fury. I forget how low we went with our language, but I took the post down, and thought that, when school began last week, we could make peace. Not so. She declared I had to apologise to her personally for a) ignoring the government regulations (and the RNLI advice) and b) pointing out that she was – as I have been – a recreational drug user.

Was it news to her? I refused, and she invited me to perform an intimate act on myself. We now have a boring four-year feud before us, after which our children will move to different schools; or, if they don’t, a boring eleven-year feud.

Pandemic holds many perils. One is that, in the desire to keep ourselves safe, we elevate the most nauseating in our midst – the kind of people who spend thousands of pounds on boundary disputes over the height of trees – and make ourselves less safe.

The police were called on someone very close to me under lockdown. She arrived at her holiday cottage before lockdown, and I delivered food to her. A neighbour called the police to say she had arrived after lockdown – a lie – and that she was entertaining guests – also a lie. She is selling up now because the village, quite literally, isn’t big enough for the both of them. Her neighbour will be a pandemic monitor, because local politics is no different from national politics. The least fit will offer themselves for service: because not everyone has a cautionary mass mouse death tale, or an attachment to the private conscience.

The tensions between liberty and security is the central question of political philosophy; I doubt those who choose security will know it.     

Do you think 'Covid marshals' will help keep the virus under control, or will it be a step in the wrong direction? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.