By Paul Homewood
Also in the Telegraph:
We are heading for a national heatwave emergency, or a heatwave as we used to call it. Just as a few frigid days in winter are now known as a “snow event” and winter gales come with names attached, so the arrival of high summer is greeted as a life-threatening episode. The Government’s emergency response unit Cobra has been summoned to draw up plans to cope with what might turn out to be one day with temperatures in the upper 90s.
Back in the mists of time, a Met Office forecaster such as Michael Fish or John Kettley would attach a magnetic sun emblem on to a map of the UK and tell us it would be hot. Now their predictions are accompanied by colour-coded warnings and advice to wear a hat, apply sun cream or sleep under a sheet.
It borders on hysteria. In London yesterday, the temperature peaked at around 31C – hot, but not that hot. The rest of the week looks warm for July, before the real scorcher arrives (probably) at the weekend. According to the Met Office: “It is uncertain how long the very hot weather will last, but it is likely that much of the UK will see a return to cooler and more widely unsettled conditions during the week.”
So why the panic? It is not as if we are facing anything on a par with the long, hot summer of 1976 when for 15 consecutive days from June 23 to July 7 temperatures reached 90F (32C) somewhere in England. If that happened today, ministers, Army chiefs and health officials would be meeting in a permanent crisis session.
How did people cope before air conditioning, refrigeration and the sartorial dispensation to walk around shirtless (men) or in the skimpiest of attires (women)? I often sit in an Edwardian theatre and wonder how they managed in their suits and winged collars or dresses and whalebone corsets on the hottest of days, unable to strip off because the social norms insisted you dress properly, however uncomfortable you may feel.
After all, hot summers are nothing new. In 1911, the sun shone almost unbroken for two months and that year, until fairly recently, held the record for the highest temperature recorded in this country at 36.7C on August 9.
Of course, people suffered from the sweltering heat and did what they could to mitigate the misery, just as we have always done. What is different nowadays is the direct intervention of state agencies, a reprise of what we saw during the Covid lockdowns.
The same players, indeed, are reaching for the levers of nannying authority now co-ordinated by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which sprang into being on the back of the pandemic. Its chief executive is Dame Jenny Harries, formerly familiar to everyone as a director of Public Health England. Once established, an agency such as this has to find a reason to intervene, otherwise what is it for?
So the hot weather has given it an excuse to do just that. If the thermometer rises above 40C, which would be remarkable, it is poised to declare a “Level Four emergency”. This is to be triggered when the hot weather is so extreme that “illness and death may occur among the fit and healthy”, as well as the most vulnerable.
In London and southern England, we already have a Level Three “heat-health alert”, which advises us “to enjoy the hot weather when it arrives, but keep yourself hydrated and to find shade where possible when UV rays are strongest, between 11am and 3pm.”
In addition, “stay cool indoors by closing curtains on rooms that face the sun – and remember that it may be cooler outdoors than indoors; never leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle, especially infants, young children or animals, check that fridges, freezers and fans are working properly; and avoid physical exertion in the hottest parts of the day.”
Well, who would have known? How did we manage for millennia before the UKHSA came along? A Level Four emergency would see schools closed, as they were (unnecessarily) during the pandemic. When I was young and the weather was hot, lessons were held outside. Now, just the prospect of one or two very hot days is enough to set off a nervous breakdown, potentially affecting food supplies, disrupting travel and putting nuclear power plants out of action. It will certainly encourage those who have been working from home for the past few years to stay put.
There is, of course, a connection between this overreaction and the way we live now, with the state feeling entitled to intrude on every aspect of our lives and, let’s be honest, encouraged to do so by many. It is a yearning to be cosseted that Boris Johnson identified when he promised to put “an arm around the nation” to support people through whatever adversity they might experience.
It is an approach that underpins the expansion of the welfare state to encompass millions who could be working but won’t, and militates against any reform of the NHS, which then needs billions of pounds extra funding to prevent its collapse.
This is why we spend too much and tax too much, the central issue in the Tory leadership election. A state that thinks it knows how best we should live our lives has no moral compunction in taking most of our income. Politicians sense that a majority would rather the government or others provided for them and their needs so tailor their policies accordingly. But if people want to be looked after from cradle to grave, they can’t have low taxes as well.
To fund the paternalistic state, taxes need to be kept higher than they should be and other programmes, like defence, get less than they need. There is a trade-off. On top of that, the precautionary principle that guides modern governance generates many of the rules and regulations that suffocate individual enterprise.
It lends itself to an inability to rationalise personal risk or to accept any hardship, however minor or unavoidable, and leaves people resistant to political arguments about re-imagining the size of state or questioning what it does.
Amid all the waffle about taxes dominating the Tory leadership contest, there is precious little debate about this fundamental point. There is, however, plenty of hot air – as if we hadn’t got enough of that already.