A 72-year old man visits his elderly father in hospital. He leaves, obviously emotional. It does not take a rocket scientist – or, as we perhaps should say these days, a vaccine scientist – to work out the sort of distressing thoughts that must have been going through his mind.
Who could seriously begrudge a child the opportunity of seeing a parent in those circumstances? And yet, in these unprecedented times, last weekend’s photos of a red-eyed Prince Charles – who had the audacity to visit his 99-year old father in hospital for a total of 30 minutes – led to a widespread outpouring, not of sympathy, but of hostility.
As if to prove the adage that an empty vessel makes the loudest sound, those lambasting Charles for his actions – which were, they said, a breach of the Covid laws – were not even right about that. Visiting a “close family member” in hospital is a specific exemption from the stay at home requirement (schedule 3A, paragraph 2(7)(e)(ii) of the regulations, for those sitting at the front of the class).
You do not, however, need to be a dab hand at reading legislation to work out right from wrong in this situation. The response to Charles’s visit – and obvious distress – exemplifies a wider trend, where misplaced legal technicalities trump common sense and basic decency, in a form of collective curtain-twitching.
Take Amanda Holden, another target of the curtain-twitchers, who was reported to the police for apparently breaking lockdown laws after taking a “distressing” phone call from her elderly father. She drove 200 miles to Cornwall, stayed overnight and returned the next day. From the coverage of this incident, you might be forgiven for thinking that she was found having a haircut in the middle of a 500-person rave, instead of dropping everything to deal with an emergency. Yet again, the curtain-twitchers didn’t even have the law on their side: you are allowed to leave your home to provide “care and assistance”.
These stories are not merely a transient social media storm. They feed into a pernicious narrative, that acts as a source of disinformation about what we can and cannot do during the pandemic. Just as it’s important that people keep to the rules, it’s vital that people realise that they can leave home when the circumstances require.
If you are having a mental health crisis, you can – and should – go and get help. Domestic violence victims should leave. If you receive that dreaded call from your parents in the middle of the night saying they need you, you should go to their aid. If you pet is ill, take it to the vet. The list could go on.
However draconian the rules may feel in some ways, they are still infused with the common sense that underpins the rule of law in this country. If you have a reasonable excuse, you can leave home. In most situations where our reaction is that someone genuinely needs our help, or there is a real emergency, it will be legal to do the right thing.
At some point, though, this common sense has been lost from how we, as the public, respond to the proportionate and human reactions of others. The whole rationale of the unprecedented restrictions we are facing is to save lives – and to minimise the pain felt by so many over the past, terrible year. That is why we should stick to the rules. In doing so, we should not allow a tendency for curtain-twitching technicality to trump our humanity. The only right response to Prince Charles’s visit is to wish him and his family well, and to hope that the Duke makes a speedy recovery.