He arrived at my primary school in 1946, skin turned to leather by the sun. He taught us Latin and English, cricket, football, and rugby. As scouts, we learnt to live under canvas and identify south from our wristwatches or the lichens on tree trunks, and we helped him to prepare the sports pitches. This was my introduction to grass roots, the source of the metaphor, as we learnt how to replace worn patches of grass by transplantation, a simple skill I have employed on my various lawns over the succeeding decades.
Grass roots suck up nutrition from the soil, requiring only rain, carbon dioxide and sunlight for the plant to flourish once the leaf has opened. In the metaphor, we are the grass roots, the community with all that potential to flourish but always with the threat hanging over us from an adverse environment. It is now so easy to envisage how that environment may be influenced for good or ill, the pandemic and climate change obviously but also, perhaps more apparent that ever previously in our lifetimes, the competence of our governments and those who advise them. In the metaphor, they are the gardeners with their trampling boots and bottles of fertiliser and weed killer.
Politicians and people in the media are very conscious of us, the grass roots. They seek our opinions in polls and try to satisfy our needs and (less sensibly) wants. The former is essential, the latter often ill-advised as needs are universal but wants differ greatly between individuals; these wants are what has driven climate change, obesity and the failures of capitalism. In thinking about the difference between want and need as the pandemic started in China, I decided that the greatest need of us in Scotland was clear information on how best to protect ourselves and our communities, and decided to write one or two articles about it. I did not think it possible that over a year later I would be writing my 40th one on the subject, but as the infection took hold and it became apparent that we were to be one of the most severely affected countries in the world, I found it difficult to stop. I have continued to try to provide factual information for the grass roots, hoping perhaps to emulate the gardener who waters and aerates the lawn rather than sprays on chemicals.
There is no doubt in my mind, to switch the metaphor to the pandemic, that there are now green shoots to be seen in terms of recovery in the UK. If you wish to describe it in waves (I know, a different metaphor), we endured the first one a year ago during which very many more people were infected than were recorded because we were urged to stay at home unless very ill, there were inadequate tests available, and the disease is often present without symptoms. A delayed lock-down put a brake on it but the total failure of the contact tracing system was responsible for the infection persisting through the summer and its resurgence in autumn. The billions spent on this benefitted many wealthy consultants and their companies but would have been much better spent on boosting regional public health responses. The government was inadvertently fertilising the weeds.
The first appearance of green shoots was extinguished, and the second wave began. Again, delayed lockdown started to show an effect, the rate of increase of infection slowed, but the persistence of the infection in the population had allowed genetic variants to arise and one in southern England proved to be both more easily spread but also somewhat more virulent, and a clear third wave of hospitalisations and deaths became apparent. This was the same one that is now afflicting Europe, mainly due to the UK variant. Our third wave had simply merged with the second.
The lesson from this is that green shoots are tender and require careful nourishment. Our saviour thus far has been the vaccines, all of which so far have proved effective against both the original virus and the UK variant. However, they are probably less so against the South African and Brazilian variants, and new vaccines are already being prepared to cover these as we fear a fourth wave. But we must not put all our hopes on vaccines, since the virus is very liable to mutate to its advantage; we shall probably always be trying to catch up, barring major advances in immunology, needing booster vaccinations annually. This means that public health measures will be necessary indefinitely and no government minister, no matter how wise, can guarantee the absence of future lockdown or legal restrictions. I wish the media and pressure groups would stop asking about this; it just attracts shifty answers.
To return to our gardener. What needs to be done as the green shoots of recovery appear? And what do we, the green shoots, do to help ourselves? The basics are simple, and I have explained them repeatedly. The virus spreads mainly by breath and to some extent by contact. It hangs in the air for hours but if the air moves it is diluted and moves away with it. Enclosed, ill-ventilated places are most dangerous, and the risk increases with the numbers of people in the space, their activity and rate depth of breathing. All owners and managers of buildings and transport must take account of this to protect their workers and customers.
The message for pubs and night clubs, theatres and cinemas is clear; while the infection is around they will alas be dangerous places to visit. Thus, there is a compelling case for admission to be restricted to fully vaccinated people and continuing strict hygiene. The same is true for international travel. To do this would reduce if not eliminate the risk but would, I believe, be regarded as taking all reasonable measures to protect those in the building or transport system. This will doubtless cause problems, but these are soluble, and it is much better than permanent closure. We ourselves will have to continue wearing masks when meeting others indoors and using hand hygiene for the foreseeable future, although as the vaccination rate rises there will be some relaxation.
For governments, there are also simple messages. First, ensure the population from secondary school age upwards is vaccinated as quickly as possible and do this collaboratively, since our safety is dependent on other countries doing the same. Silly disputes aside, here the UK response has been first class and the UK minister in charge, Nadhim Zahawi, and his advisors deserve credit for it.
Second, as the numbers of new infections fall (and they are not yet falling as quickly as one would like), it is essential that the broken test, trace and isolate system is mended quickly. Its performance so far has been a national embarrassment and financial disaster. If anyone wonders why, it is only necessary to see how it has worked in African countries with a fraction of our resources and no fancy apps. There, local tracers ensure all contacts are found, isolated for two weeks and, crucially, supported during isolation. Their mortality has been a small fraction of ours. We would do well to emulate Sierra Leone.
The man who taught me re-turfing also taught me about metaphors and how to write essays, at a time when I was a very green shoot. His lessons have lasted a lifetime and I know he would not have liked my mixing waves and grass, though you can see waves when wind blows over field of ripe corn. He had spent the previous five years fighting for our freedom, over which time few of us had enjoyed a holiday or seen our fathers, and we still had years of privation and rationing ahead. We have now spent one year of worry, inconvenience and loss, much worse for the poor and disadvantaged than for many like me, and we need to remain sensibly compliant and patient.
I hope you have found my essays helpful and will think of who was behind me and them. Most of us owe so much to our teachers; in my case he was one of many at that time who had risked their lives and health that we should be free from tyranny, the late Dennis Curry.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own