stay alert
Society and Social Structures

‘Stay Alert’ is a perfectly sensible slogan

The Government is coming under a lot of criticism for its ‘Stay Alert’ messaging as we move incrementally out of the coronavirus lockdown. ‘What exactly does this mean?’ has become the theme, and it is usually asked in a rather patronising tone of derision. I think this unfair, and we in the Church have recent experience of why the exhortation to ‘Stay Alert’ is important – in the context of Safeguarding practice and reform.

We send large numbers of people on courses because we have come to take certain risks much more seriously, and this is to the credit of our leaderships. If bishops, archdeacons and diocesan safeguarding officers badger clergy to follow guidelines and keep their training and records up-to-date, it is because they are alert to the ongoing unpredictable character of multiple risks, and they should be praised and encouraged for being so systematic about keeping the dangers at the forefront of our minds by urging us to stay alert.

Keeping people safe is a two-tier process. You can be prescriptive and directive with a host of rules to be followed, but as we have come to appreciate in the Safeguarding context, this has to be accompanied by a healthy culture – the culture of alertness. A simple litmus test of our state of alertness is whether, when someone points out that standards are slipping, they are thanked or mocked and told not to be pedantic.

Achieving a healthy culture is not easy, as we have found out. Establishing our internal culture of Safeguarding is still not a completed piece of work. After all the Bishops’ letters, IICSA hearings and media reports, we still have neglectful congregations through ignorance or recalcitrance. Even among those who have taken the messaging onboard there is still an ongoing risk that sometimes we allow complacency to creep in, and during our last Safeguarding debate at General Synod we were reminded by Susie Leafe that abusers don’t simply groom victims; they groom entire congregations. A context is established where the abuser’s behaviour can be hidden in plain sight, and if a suspicion should arise, those who are not alert shrug it off, don’t take it seriously, and are too ready to accept the denials. Of all institutions, the Church should value the exhortation to stay alert: ‘Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour…‘ (1Pt 5:8).

These problems even arise in the NHS. Towards the end of my professional career, I represented a premature baby who narrowly escaped death through serious infection in the Intensive Care Unit of an internationally famous hospital. Very swiftly the parents came under suspicion of deliberately causing the child harm. Experts from a similarly prestigious institution were called to testify that so high were the standards in such environments that outside malign agency was the only feasible explanation. They even had a nurse who thought she saw something (but it was dark and it was unchallenged at the time).

Experts were duly called in; their opinion must be respected. But everyone must must be alert. When the medical records and reports were presented, we picked up that something had been been overlooked. Amidst all the institutional indignation that their reputation was being questioned, we noticed that the child had two types of bacteria overwhelming its defences; one airborne, the other waterborne. The mechanism of infection postulated against the parent could potentially explain one breach of hygiene to admit infection, but what of the other? If one could be attributed to institutional error, why not both? The child was eventually reunited with its parents, and grew up without mishap.

In the course of the evidence, the expert I engaged to assist the court independently offered a story. One of the features of the best experts is that they are not ashamed to say what they cannot be confident about, where they have made errors themselves, and they tend to acknowledge human fallibility in intense environments.

On this occasion, my expert testified to real life in ICUs. He gave the example of changing a nappy of a child who was being fed through a peg into the stomach at 3.00 in the morning, after a long shift. When you reached across, could your sleeve have brushed the nappy, and then the peg or the tube? Almost certainly it didn’t but… You ought to stop, record and report the incident, change, scrub up again… And yet it’s almost certainly a waste of time. You do not know for sure that the child’s safety was compromised by your moment of inattentiveness.

The integrity of the expert permitted him to say that we’ve all been somewhere like that. His honesty was why he made it onto my ‘experts list’ and remain there. His ego was not on the line when hard questions had to be answered. Not all experts are like that.

What he was illustrating was that a culture of alertness is what preserves good practice in circumstances such as these. It is not simply the chances of accidental infection that need to be considered, but the consequences for others if you call it wrong. ‘Stay Alert’ keeps you fully cognisant of both.

We cannot live simply by rules and protocols. Sometimes we need to reinforce a wider cultural message and invoke our social memory. Remember how keen you were to establish social distancing and why; remember how you used to wash your hands regularly while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘God Save the Queen’. Remember that sense of anxiety as the seriousness of the situation dawned upon you. The virus is as dangerous as it ever was, and even though we may be better understanding that calculated risks can now be made, the sensible emphasis needs to be on the word ‘calculated.

Calculated risks are undertaken every day in many walks of life: medical, military, financial, driving, etc., etc. The risks rise exponentially when when complacency creeps in. ‘Stay Alert’ is the reminder, and it is a perfectly sensible slogan.