Any day now I shall be frogmarched, or at least very firmly escorted, out of a blood donor centre in London. I know this is going to happen because I made the appointment weeks ago and I intend to keep it. But when I signed up to donate my pint of blood to the public good, I was not required to wear a muzzle during my donation. Now I am. I do not intend to do so. I find the idea of donning one of these face-nappies physically repulsive, and dislike the mouthless, submissive appearance they create in all their wearers. I also believe them to be futile. I know the government believes this too, because it was saying so only eight weeks ago, and there has been no great scientific discovery since then.
But above all, I am severely distressed by the obligation. I should not be forced into such a gesture. It requires me to assent to a stupid and damaging policy of national panic and self-imposed economic tragedy. I loathe the way we are more and more expected to silence our dissent. But this new requirement — to make a public declaration of support for the state by meekly gagging ourselves in public — is actually totalitarian.
You are welcome to say that I am being selfish. But hold on before you get carried away. I’m not sure how my level of selfishness is calculated. I am one of the very small minority (about 830,000 in England) who willingly donates blood. I’ve been doing it on and off since 1970. I often try to persuade others to join me, but I find that people are curiously reluctant to endure the needle in the arm and the small but definite risks involved. If you feel your willingness to wear a mask is unselfish, that my refusal is selfish, and that I should put up with it in this case, you can easily cancel out the loss of my contribution by volunteering yourself — and replacing my lost gore with your own for as long as this rule lasts.
But I know you won’t. Your resolution will fade when it comes to the tedious palaver of booking the appointment, turning up, filling in the intrusive forms and then being skilfully stabbed on the inside of your elbow. It’ll be too much trouble. So don’t call me selfish. Don’t accuse me (on very thin evidence) of endangering others when I can prove that my actions have helped to save the lives of others. Instead, think about what I am saying.
Blood donor centres are not like shops, or trains or buses. I’m not asking the owner to let me in as a favour to him. I’m asking to be let in to do a favour to anyone who might need a blood transfusion. I lose nothing if I am kept out, except the sense of a duty done, a cup of tea and a couple of custard creams. I gain nothing, except the tea and biscuits, if I am allowed in. The owner, the government, is not running a business. It’s helping me and others in a joint enterprise of mercy. So the argument that the owner has a right to refuse if you won’t meet his conditions is pretty weak. Also, isn’t someone who is giving something away entitled to some say over the conditions in which he does it?
I’ll be told that I’m endangering the staff. But why should I be? Donor centres are not places of sickness, but places of health. Their staff, as well as being among the pleasantest people you are ever likely to meet (unlike their rigid-minded bosses), are overwhelmingly healthy and young, so the danger to them from Covid is statistically tiny. So is the risk that I am a carrier, now the disease is vanishing from among us. In any case, not much time is spent in close proximity. There are a couple of brief interviews across a table, then a short moment when the needle is inserted and another when it is removed, but I would have far more contact with any of the staff if I asked them to come to the (muzzle-free) pub afterwards.
The danger, such as it was, had presumably been much greater back in late April, at the height of the panic, when I last gave blood and was not required to cover my face. But it is even sillier than that. The law on muzzle-wearing does not actually apply to blood donor centres, only to public transport — and now shops. As originally set out in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings on Public Transport) (England) Regulations 2020, it allows several exemptions. These, used imaginatively, would allow a bit of discretion for people such as me, if anybody wanted to use discretion. NHS Blood and Transplant claims to base its policy on the rules for hospitals, which are not backed by law and also offer exemptions. Yet when I repeatedly pointed this out to the English blood agency, they ignored me. They stuck to their rigid, prepared, concrete-headed statement.
But that is not all. At the time of writing, the Welsh blood service is doing the exact opposite. The difference is so great, it makes one gasp and stretch one’s eyes. They require donors to remove face coverings for safety reasons. They fear such coverings make it hard for staff to detect the signs that donors may be about to faint and so possibly injure themselves. ‘It is essential that our staff can see donors’ faces so they can intervene at the earliest opportunity if the donor is about to faint,’ they explain. ‘We will ask you to remove your face covering once you enter one of our screening booths and then for the rest of your donation journey.’
They add that they will respect a donor’s decision not to wear a face covering at any stage, saying rightly that this is ‘a personal choice’. That is roughly what the English service said until the muzzle zealots got hold of them. So, unless things change again, it looks as if I shall be headed to Wales pretty soon, where they’re happy to let me hand over my crimson armful without demanding a declaration of allegiance to Matt Hancock, or anyone else. Getting such a surrender out of me is, well, like getting blood out of a stone.
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Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.
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