Friday 12 June 2020

Damned If You Do and Damned If You Don't: The Consultancy Racket

Like many academics Matron is forced by the rules of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to show that her work has “impact”. Academic research, paid for by student fees and the tax payer, is no longer supposed to happen entirely inside the Ivory Tower (if it ever did). And she does not actually have an ideological problem with that in principle. Our work should benefit policymaking in the real world in a positive way. In fact, that is a large part of the reason why she became an academic. 

One way to show impact is through the provision of consultancy services to government agencies, businesses and even civil society organisations. For us lawyers, this usually involves reviewing current legal frameworks, evaluating ongoing organisational activities and priorities, or providing advice on upcoming policy decisions. In theory, consultants should provide an independent outside perspective that informs decision-making. But the practice is often different.

In many cases, this already becomes apparent during the tender process. Tender documents that speak of "agreed assumptions", that prevent publication without client approval and that subject your work to several rounds of internal consultation do not always absolutely restrict the academic consultant's independence. But they certainly raise red flags. In one recent tender interview for a review of the work of a civil society organisations, we were actually asked what we would do, if the organisation we reviewed did not agree with our recommendations. They may, of course have tried to test our willingness to stand up to internal meddling. But our response made it clear that we would try to resist that and we did not get the job. So maybe not.

Another tender (for the benchmarking of a national statutory framework against an international standard) we lost on price – to a city law firm whose normal billable hourly rate for one of their mid-level solicitors exceeds the daily rate that we had quoted. The work would have been one of those never-ending time sinks, where the actual time we would have spent would undoubtedly have vastly exceeded the days we had actually quoted. The only question here therefore is whether our competitor managed to pitch so low because they would put an intern on the job or because, as one of my potential collaborators put it, “they had skin in the game”.

And then there are the cases when you DO get the job but find out quickly that you are mainly there to add a layer of “independent verification” to conclusions that those who commissioned the project have already agreed on before the request for quotation was even published. A few years ago, a fairly large team at my University was asked to review the "trickle-down impact of legal instruments issued by a large international organisation over a 25-year period. The draft report we prepared went through innumerable rounds of internal consultations and departmental responses before it was finally deemed acceptable. By that point very few of our original conclusions survived unscathed. In fact, we were warned from the beginning that we would not exactly be popular with the organisation’s operational sections. Well, wasn’t that the truth? 

Often, “internal consultations” also provide the consultant with a rather alarming insight into how different parts of government interact. Like the time when the supposedly independent regulator asked for more time to respond to our draft because they were “coordinating their response” with the Ministry that funds them. Or the time we were told to make slight changes to our work “to keep so and so happy”. And we complied. 

Because if you don’t comply, there is a good chance that the report you worked on so hard - and for a fee vastly below your actual market rate - will never be published. Or, as one could observe most recently with regard to the government’s inquiry into the higher rate of BAME deaths from COVID-19, it will be published without your recommendations, which will have mysteriously vanished. Because if the government tells people that there aren’t any of those, then they will never have existed in the first place. The past is alterable. The past never has been altered. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

One problem with the system as it is currently run is that we, as academics, continue to play by those rules. Because we want to do the work. Either because it’s a nice bit of extra income for people who pay the standard 30-50% “but-you-get-to-do-a-job-you-love” salary deduction every month (hello social workers, nurses and teachers etc.). But more often we do it because we actually want our work to change things, to have “impact”. And because we absolutely know that if WE don’t do it, someone else will. And that someone might be even more mercenary or even just more pliable. It may be someone, who is only in it for the money and doesn’t care, or someone who uses their own commercial power to influence government decision-making. Or someone, who really just needs the job and isn’t in the economic position to walk away from it, just because they are asked to make a few changes to their conclusions. 

A few months ago, Matron was asked to work as a sub-contractor on a project for that big social media company, whose name she will not normally utter without swearing. It should have been an easy “you’ve got to be kidding me” response. But she actually thought about it for several days before declining the offer. Because the work would have involved advice on an area of law that, by happy coincidence, fell slap bang in the middle of her current line of research. In an ideal world it would have been a marvellous way to try and implement some of her suggestions in practice using a market-leading provider. How many of us would not be tempted by that possibility? How many of us can resist anything – except that kind of temptation?

But in this case Matron did resist it because she is absolutely certain that that particular client is beyond saving and that her work would have been exploited one way or the other, if not now, then later. What she did instead, for her sins, was to recommend a younger colleague with similar views and ethics, who she knew was in need of work and extra income. A coward’s way out, maybe, but at least one where there is a small chance that the work is done by someone with good intentions thus keeping other wolves, who would be only too happy to do the company’s bidding for a fee, from the door. Was it the right decision to just offload her own guilt onto someone else? Time will tell.

So, what should we do? How do we prevent the exploitation of our expertise for nefarious purposes? The easy answer is: together. Through refusing to give in to demands for changes we don't agree with, by insisting that independent reports are indeed independent and by ensuring that we have a right to publish our work, even if the client decides not to.

In practice, this is unlikely to happen because those who consistently try to defend their own values in that way are unlikely to be in the consultancy business for very long. Consultancy deals do not grow on trees. And the REF impact requirement makes it even harder to say no to the opportunities that do come along.

But maybe more of us should at least lift the cloak and speak out about what it is really like to take part in this racket. Share our experiences. Be vocal about them. Create a frickin hashtag. Whatever works.

And if any of us ever reach the big heights of fame, where our power matches theirs because, if we say something, people will listen, then we should definitely use that power.  Matron herself is nowhere near that pinnacle and the sad truth is that we are all of us replaceable in most cases. But many of us still have reasonably safe jobs, often at a well-regarded universities, with a salary that is maybe half of what we could earn in practice, but that still pays for a decent lifestyle. Everything else is a bonus. Maybe those of us, who are in that lucky position can afford to say no occasionally, remembering what we actually stand for. It's an idea worth thinking about at least.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Snakes and Ladders: #blacklivesmatter, Covid-19 and why we must make the best of constitutional moments

Do you feel bad or uncomfortable about us doing this?”

“I do. But I’d also feel bad and uncomfortable if we didn’t do this. So it’s six and two threes.”*

A little list

Those, who follow Matron may remember that she has been quite vocal over the last ten weeks of lockdown about idiots, who risk their own lives and others’ by doing stupid things in public that risk transmission of a deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic. Testosterone laden jocks that just can’t live without their daily regimen of pull-ups on the outdoor gym equipment in the local park. Couples with small children that, by keeping a safe distance from each other, take up so much public space that they can't distance themselves from anyone else. Joggers, usually male, who see this as an opportunity to shave a few more seconds off their all-time record and who see "other people" as nothing more than inconsiderate obstacles on their road to fame. Those two girls, who hardly look up from their mobile phones when they force other pedestrians into the path of oncoming traffic while their dog's leash creates a deadly tripwire across the pavement. Dominic effing Cummings testing his effing eyesight. They’d none of them be missed and Matron very definitely has them on a list.

And then there are those other, more ideologically motivated idiots, who think that this whole lockdown thing is at best a government-sponsored hoax and at worst an infringement of their human right to get a haircut. Matron is of course not the first to point out the irony that many of those that come out on the streets in protest (whether with or without an assault rifle) to proclaim that “the country needs to get back to work” are not necessarily talking about their own “right” to work, but about the “right” of others to provide to them the services they feel entitled to receive. Anyone for patriotically picked strawberries? Don't worry! Waitrose has your back.

But having said all that, this pandemic and the related lockdown does, of course, have an undeniable economic impact on many people that we will only be able to appreciate in its full effect when government subsidies like furlough schemes, mortgage payment holidays and tenancy eviction bans run out. It is by now a truism that the virus affects all of us but does not affect us all in the same way. And eventually a balance will have to be struck between the harm it causes to individual and public health and the individual and societal harm we will suffer from an extended lockdown. Matron gets that. And yet…

Stay home, save lives, protect... sorry, what was the other one?

The new infection numbers in the UK remain high, the daily death rate seems to have plateaued (for now) at an unhealthy 100-200 a day on a seven day average, and the infamous “R” number remains stubbornly around the “1” mark, meaning that we will likely be living this new normal for quite a while longer. With the official UK death toll having reached more than 40,000 and the excess death toll now exceeding 60,000, this is no time for complacency. The longer this drags on, the more damage it will cause. To our health, our economies and our democracies. Which is why Matron has been stubbornly on the side of those, who have urged caution about relaxing the lockdown and who insisted that opening up too early would likely prolong the agony and cause repeated relapses. Being shut in the house for months was not fun. Having to go back inside after you were allowed to play outside for a bit is unlikely to do anything for anyone's mental health.

The mettle of our pasture

So why then did Matron ultimately decide to throw caution to the wind last weekend and join the local Black Lives Matter protest?** There is a lot to be criticised about that decision and many have indeed shown their disdain for those, who have taken similar decisions because they felt that, on balance, the harm of contracting and possibly spreading the virus does not measure up against the harm caused to them and their fellow humans by structural inequality, discrimination and oppression.  People on “the left” have been accused of “changing the coronavirus narrative overnight” to suit their social justice warrior agenda, while others have argued that this is a fallacy because a clear cost/benefit analysis would undoubtedly show that the number of black lives that will be saved by the protests is below the number that those protests will risk by further spreading the infection. This could be particularly important, some also say, in the light of the empirical fact that the UK BAME Covid-19 death rate is more than twice that of white people.

However, from what Matron can observe from her own safe and secure, remote-working, lily-white, middle class vantage point, this may be the wrong way to look at it, at least when you see it through the eyes of someone, who has likely already been subject to continued exposure to the disease throughout the entirety of the lockdown because their badly paid job has suddenly been elevated to "key worker" glory, and who may consequently not feel that joining a protest will add much to the risk that they have already been expected to take. That higher BAME death rate may of course have its origin in genetics. But not a few have argued that it is much more likely that socio-economic factors and existing systemic inequality played a much more significant role in causing it (if only we could have an inquiry designed to find out more about this. Oh. Wait…!).

So, if you and yours are already dying from Covid-19 because you are deemed essential for keeping the wheels of capitalism turning, you may have a different perception of the risk you take by protesting against the very system that already kills you in greater numbers than your white peers.

But that does not apply to Matron, of course, who has spent the last ten weeks safely locked down in her cosy flat in a posh suburb of one of the UK’s major cities. So why were we there, placards in hand and with a drawn look of persistent health anxiety on our faces? "Is this really the time?" some of her mates will ask her? "Can’t this wait until we managed to get a handle on this pandemic?"

If not now, when then?

It's a seductive argument. After all, white supremacy, police brutality and systemic (economic and political) inequality have been around for longer than any of us. They're probably going to be good for a few more weeks or months. Why not wait with all the protesting until we can do so safely?

Well the first counter-argument to that is that if you want to be a good ally to a community that fights oppression but of which you yourself are not a member, it is not your call to make when to schedule the revolution. So even if it is scheduled for 4am tomorrow morning, you drag your weary body out of bed and you show up.

But the more important argument is that we are currently living through what is known in the trade as “a constitutional moment”. One of those rare moments in time, when something so exceptional has happened that it shakes even average people out of the inertia bubble they usually inhabit. A moment where real change is actually a possibility.

Both the anger that has erupted following the death of George Floyd and the bravery of people, who currently grant us real-time access to their own lives and personal experiences despite the risk to their lives and livelihoods, is not something that can just be bottled and saved until a more convenient time. Because there is a good chance that by that time the attention of those who need to see that anger and that courage will once again have been diverted to other matters. It is now that hashtags like #unMUTEny or #BlackintheIvory show us what it is really like to live in the average Western democracy as a black man, woman, actor, scientist, student, nurse, doctor, bus driver etc. And it is now that this insight will hopefully motivate us to take action.

The discussion surrounding British colonial history - to take just one example - matters now, not because black people are speaking about it. They have always spoken about it. It matters because for what is likely to be a very brief moment in time, white people are likely to listen. And having the other person listen is important when you’re trying to have a conversation.

Snakes and ladders

Constitutional moments focus the mind and facilitate change at speed rather than through small, incremental, trickle down moves. On the game of Snakes and Ladders that is our political system, they allow us to move from place 29 to place 84 in one fell swoop (before we likely slide down a few more places when the backlash comes and we next step on the head of a snake).

To wit: it has taken Bristol Council until 2018 to agree that the plaque on Edward Colston’s statue should include mention of his slave-trading activities. It then took over two year to do exactly nothing to follow up on that agreement because a final wording could not be agreed. After the protestors' decision last weekend to donate the statue to the newly established Bristol Underwater History Museum, it took London a mere two further days to remove the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan from its position at West India Quay. Which means that, oftentimes, these things only happen during constitutional moments when acute pressure is applied. And to apply acute pressure, you need the numbers, in a very visible way. Even in the times of Covid. 

Constitutional moments are not moments to be wasted and they are not moments that can be scheduled, delayed or conserved for later. Some of the constitutional moments Matron has experienced in her own lifetime include the Chernobyl disaster (which led to moves in many countries to divest from nuclear power), the fall of the Berlin Wall (which ultimately led to the end of the cold war), the Stonewall Riots and the AIDS crisis (both of which sparked big movements and led to better rights protection of LGBTQ+ people), the Snowden revelations (which caused a review of the laws governing government surveillance in many countries) and the accusations against Harvey Weinstein (which started the #metoo movement).

None of the issues that led to these constitutional moments were invisible to the naked eye before the respective events occurred. In all cases we knew or had an inkling of what was happening or we were aware of the risks. We just didn't really want to know. But if we had to make a decision today of what our response to those constitutional moments should have been, would we really trade the improvements that have come from them and the progress we managed to make as a result for a safe few weeks, if there had been a pandemic at the time? 

So when our BAME friends and neighbours tell us that the brutalisation of their community is a pandemic that has raged for centuries (mostly wilfully ignored by us “dear white people”) and that the time to act is now - because for this very very short moment in time, people might actually be willing to do something about it - should we not respect that view and adjust our own cost-benefit analysis accordingly?

As someone, who enjoys white privilege, Matron has undoubtedly committed many micro and maybe even macro aggressions against BAME friends and colleagues in her life. At the very least she has benefitted from her whiteness in innumerable ways. To become aware of and unlearn that is her responsibility going forward. 

But right now, at this particular constitutional moment, there is work to be done by all of us. And even though protesting in the middle of a pandemic is not the only way to bring about change, it is one way. And it is the way that has been chosen by those most affected. And that’s ultimately what matters.

Actual conversation with Mrs Matron on the way to last week's Black Lives Matter protest. 

** It should be noted at this point that Matron is much more of a coward than this post suggests and that the protest she and Mrs Matron joined was in fact billed as "socially distanced" and was mostly true to that promise, because it took place in a massive field just outside the city centre with next to no police presence. Had it turned into something like London or Seattle, she would most likely have chickened out, dropped her sign and run. So this piece is not primarily about making people feel guilty for not joining protests. It is about making people, who did join despite the Covid-19 risk, feel less guilty.

Monday 1 June 2020

Of battles won and battles yet to come

Today is the first day of what would usually be Pride month, a month of joy and celebration of battles won as well as a reminder of battles yet to be fought. Given the current situation, many of us probably don’t feel much like celebrating. But while we watch the news about race riots in the US, and while we have such clear evidence of the fact that the battles yet to be fought concern not just our own community, but other communities that are faced with their own forms of oppression, it might do us good to remember that rights and freedoms are rarely won entirely peacefully and that the road to LGBTQ+ “liberation” also started with a riot.

The Stonewall uprising in June 1969 was a reaction by members of the LGBTQ+ community against a police raid that began at the Stonewall Inn, a gay pub in Greenwich Village, New York. But while that raid was the spark that caused the explosion, it is clear that the fire had been smouldering for a long time, caused by the enduring persecution of LGBTQ+ people by the police and other state bodies. 

In the same way, it is clear that while the current riots were sparked by yet another senseless killing of a black man by a police force that seems to think itself immune (maybe rightly so) from any repercussions for its actions, it is the word “another” that makes all the difference. The murder of George Floyd is not the first incident of this kind and we all know that it is unlikely to be the last. Racism is systemic in our societies in the same way that homophobia, misogyny, ableism, colonialism and the class divide are. We are all part of it as we live our lives in blissful ignorance of the many ways in which we benefit from existing inequalities. This is the case even where we face our own form of oppression because we are queer, or disabled or women or immigrants or poor. And every time we #alllivesmatter someone else’s struggle - as we are often wont to do because we, too, suffer in our own way - we are essentially playing into the hands of those that divide and conquer all of us for their own benefit. 

I am because we are

If there is one truth universally acknowledged, it seems, it is that there is nobody so low in the pecking order of society that they cannot be made to feel better about themselves by being told that they are at least superior to the other guy (or girl). And it is often this idea of superiority, this perceived hierarchy of suffering, that prevents us from joining together to make the changes that are necessary to lift all of us above the water line. We see it in the trans exclusionary debate, where cis women (and lesbians) make an enemy of trans women because the latter allegedly lack “the shared experience" of an oppression that is presented as being specifically, genetically “female”. We see it when women’s experience of sexual and domestic abuse is minimized on account of their economic wealth and is put in competition with the real deprivation suffered by many working class men and boys. And we see it with race, when we white members of the LGBTQ+ community disregard the experience of our POC brothers and sisters while we focus, in our political work, solely on issues that advance our own goals rather than challenge the underlying structural inequality we all face. For whatever reason, it seems to be so much easier to let ourselves be divided than to unite. But selfishness, even of those that are themselves in precarious situations, is a poison that can (and, given half a chance, will) kill us all. 

I protect you, you protect me

The responsibility for resistance is arguably on us not just in the cases where we ourselves are the oppressed, but, more importantly, in the areas where our own interests align with, or ARE, those of the oppressor. It is easy to protest when it concerns a grievance that negatively affects you. It's a much harder thing to do when the situation you protest benefits you personally.

When we look at our own lives, it should be clear that we are all part of this dynamic in one way or another, that we are all privileged and oppressed in our very own ways and that we are all in danger of focusing on the areas of our lives where we suffer rather than those where we are complicit in causing the suffering of others. But if we want to effect real and lasting change, it is important not only to shift our focus in an abstract way, but to ”check our privilege” and to examine our own behaviour. To be a good ally we have to inform ourselves and make ourselves aware of the plight of other “Others” and follow through on that new found knowledge by making changes in our own daily lives.

Because even if we have made strides and inroads with regard to addressing our own oppression, those wins are fragile and liable to being overturned at any point. Because, by definition, none of us will truly be equal until all of us are. Because while the arc of the moral universe may ultimately bend towards justice, it may yet take a few detours along the way. Because if we don’t, THEY will win. 

The centre cannot hold

Many LGBTQ+ people instinctively know this. Matron herself is painfully aware of how quickly things can change just from three different Pride months she was able to experience (which was, in itself, a privilege) in New York between 2015 and 2017. 

In 2015, she and Mrs Matron arrived in New York on the day the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalised same-sex marriage in all of the US. Although it was late, she and Mrs Matron headed downtown to the very Stonewall Inn where not 50 years previously that journey had begun and where, on this day, people had already been celebrating for hours. 

The Pride March two days later was maybe the biggest event of collective happiness, Matron has ever experienced. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it now also looks like the last time we were able to ignore so comprehensively the fact that progress is not always linear.

A year later, on 12 June 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Matron woke up to that news in the same AirBnB in Brooklyn, where a year earlier she had celebrated her second honeymoon. That year, she spent the same weeks in a state of shock. The Pride festivities were, predictably, a much more somber affair, with celebrity hosts reading out the names of the dead and the rainbow colour scheme supplemented by orange bands of those in mourning. A young man, Matron encountered on the High Line, embodied what we all felt as he just sat there with a homemade sign reading “Homophobia Kills”.

It was this realisation, a reminder of what we already knew, that sent the kind of shockwaves through the community that we maybe had not felt since the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, London was attacked by a bomber in 1999. It is one thing to know, in an abstract way, that you are hated by so many. It is another to have such visceral proof of it.

That, too, is where we can relate to the way so many must feel this week after watching a video where a white police man puts his knee on the windpipe of a black man and rocks his body in full view of the cameras with impunity while that man gasps that he can’t breathe. Just like the attack on the Admiral Duncan was only the third in a series of hate crimes committed by the same man. The first two attacks targeted the black community in Brixton and the Asian community in Brick Lane. What Pulse made us understand, or remember, is that none of us can breathe. We are not safe. Not yet. And maybe never.


And so we came to June 2017, the first Pride month with a US President in charge, who physically embodies all the hate by everyone against everyone and whose sole objective is to divide and conquer us all in the service of a minutely small group of people at the very top. And it made people angry. 
Matron came out more than 30 years ago and in that time has attended many a Pride event. But that Pride March was probably the angriest she has ever seen people be. 

It was also the most political and intersectional Pride March she ever saw, and, noticeably, the March when it became possible again to question not just the ongoing commercialisation of the event but the presence of police and military groups. It was as if Trump had reminded us that neither the big corporates nor the organs of the state had always been our friend and how easy it would be for the tide to turn again.

We're all facing the same storm, but we're not all in the same boat

What we should have remembered even then, of course, was that the big corporates and the police are still not the friend of many others either. 

That we still live in a world where our POC friends do not see themselves in the advertising of all those corporations handing out branded rainbow bracelets and where a black gay man may justifiably be reluctant to cheer a bunch of NYPD officers walking down 5th Avenue in formation accompanied by a marching band. In the happiness over our own "liberation", we did not always notice those things. That's on us.

So today, on the first day of what would usually be Pride month, a month of joy and celebration of battles fought and won, we must also remember that some of the most ardent fighters in those battles past were people from communities that we are still not seeing fully and whose grievances have yet to be addressed. People like Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie - LGBTQ+ but also POC. People, who have long been ignored by many even for their contributions to the LGBQ+ struggle but who are almost never recognised by their white LGBTQ+ peers as fighters in that other struggle they also face(d). 

Those are only some of the battles yet to be fought but they are also our battles. Or at least they should be.

Friday 20 March 2020

Tales from the Crypt: Just where is the line between “stockpiling” and doing a “big shop”?*

This is normally the kind of blog post that Matron would leave to the people, who know better. Like actual chefs or sensible food writers like Jack Monroe, who have experience in thinking about shopping and cooking from the perspective of people, who might not have access to the wealth of culinary offerings that is the Waitrose down the road.

But after Jamie Oliver just got in on the gig after being commissioned to deliver a daily cooking show called “Keep cooking and carry on” 

Matron can’t help feeling that there is still a gap in the market that a perpetually distracted academic can squeeze into. After all, there’s only so much productive paid work one can do in times of an international public health crisis anyway.

What one does instead,

is obsessing over whether or not we have enough food in the house and what the balance of probability is between dying of starvation in a week’s time and being physically assaulted in loo roll aisle today. In Matron’s case, this was an easy decision to make because, for reasons of recent ill-timed international travel, she told herself that can’t leave the house until next Friday. So, she sent Mrs Matron shopping instead, who came back after three hours in the trenches with tales of Panic! At the Aldi, looking slightly traumatised and only a bit dishevelled.

So what should one buy to survive, you will rightly ask, and where exactly does one draw the line between “socially irresponsible stockpiling” and “just doing a big shop”? Matron is so glad you asked. 

Because in true academic fashion, it does of course all depend on how you phrase your research question. In this case the question being: what specific type of harm are you trying to prevent and what measures (law, code, market and social norm, yadayada) would you have to take to shape human behaviour in a way that would prevent that harm? Call it a domestic panic impact assessment (DPIA), if you will.

Three’s the magic number

The Matron household has so far shopped to prepare for exactly three different scenarios:
  1. “We’re all gonna die”
  2. “You’re all gonna die”: 
  3. “Nobody’s gonna die, you bloody fool, so just put that family pack of truffle noir-flavoured polenta back on the shelf and calm TF down”
Let's look at them in turn.

"We’re all gonna die"

This is the scenario, where Matron has picked up the virus during said ill-timed recent international travels and both she and her betrothed get ill in quick succession. Or alternatively, where Mrs Matron - as of 1400 hours today a certified “key worker” and thus required to still go out and do her job in person - will bring the damn thing home. As neither of us is in the “high-risk” group, our working hypothesis is currently a consecutive outage of vital household personnel (her and me) spread over a period of, say, two weeks. We also reckon that if either of us gets it badly, food preparation is not going to be our first concern.

As we are both capable of creating nourishing meals that include the generally recommended balance of vitamins v “things that are bad for us but taste good”, we generally assume that during those two weeks one or other of us will continue to have both the energy and the desire to cook meals from scratch for about half that time. The other half would have to be conquered by having access to food that can be 
  1. removed from the fridge/freezer;
  2. shoved into the oven/microwave; and 
  3. consumed by both of us

within the ten minutes that we are likely to stay awake between fever dreams. 

For those households that are on friendly terms with the common ready meal, Matron would therefore recommend to have enough of those in store to feed every member of the household for about a week. 

In our case, things are slightly complicated by the fact that we both hate ready meals with a burning passion, which meant that we (well, the Royal “We”, which meant mostly Mrs Matron, who is much at these things) did a bit of pre-cooking in the form of cooking double the amount we would usually consume of almost every meal “we” cooked these last two weeks. There is now a drawer in our freezer filled with delicious soups and other leftovers that require no more personal engagement that the turning of a knob. 

So there. In the words of Gloria Gaynor, we will survive!

You’re all gonna die!

In this fictional (?) scenario, the members of the Matron household remain fit and healthy because, you know, we try to be responsible, do virtual Pilates every morning and practice social distancing, but all the other idiots, who insist on spending their Friday night at Wetherspoons, are going to get ill, thus affecting supply chains and the availability of basic food stuffs for weeks or months to come. 

This scenario was harder to plan for and it did at times put Matron in mind of her grandmother, a woman, who somehow managed to get a husband and three boys through WWII but, who was never, after that, psychologically capable of having less food in the house than was necessary to feed a family of five for a month. We kind of laughed about it when we were children, but Matron can't deny that she has found a new understanding of that mindset over the last few weeks.

It is of course, the “You’re all gonna die” scenario that currently has people fighting each other for an out-of-date packet of miso and a jar of pickled onions at the Asda check-out. And on some level, who can blame them? The level of information and assurance the UK government has provided so far is laughable, consisting, as it does, of vague statements that “supermarkets will not run out of food”. Which would be so much easier to believe and trust, if…well…supermarkets had not run out of food left, right and centre right now.

Of course, the level of where one personally thinks to have reached actual food security is highly subjective. Matron finds that, for better for worse, she does in fact clock in somewhere near her grandmother’s level. So it will be about four weeks before she and Mrs Matron have to decide who eats whom. Others may come in above or below that level, depending one what their grandmothers taught them.

The next question, once you have established the limits of your own safety zone, is then what stuff to buy to make it that far. Rule No. 1, as better people than Matron have already said ad nauseam, is that there is absolutely no point in buying stuff that you wouldn’t normally want to eat, just because you’re in a panic. 

Or is there? 

Well, on the one hand there really, really isn’t. At least as long as stuff that you WOULD eat is still available. But on the other hand, there are some things to consider, like vitamins and nutritional balance. Matron is veggie and Mrs Matron is vegan, so we do need to think about things like protein et al. Which accounts for the excess tofu, halloumi and feta we have currently stored in our fridge. All long-lasting enough to get us through a health crisis without scurvy but none of it stuff that isn’t already part of our normal diet, albeit in moderation. 

Matron also suggested starting a limited store of frozen vegetables in case the fresh stuff runs out. We could agree on things like peas and frozen spinach, but Mrs Matron was strangely resistant to the idea of frozen broccoli and cauliflower (go figure) because apparently, "it tastes like ass" and on the balance of probability we would most likely live off rice and boiled lentils for a month before either of us would touch the stuff. Despite the fact that Matron's grandmother continues to whisper in her ear, “just you wait, there will come a time when you’ll be glad for a bit of frozen broccoli”, it was not a hill on which was prepared to die on, so we remain, for now, a frozen broccoli and cauliflower-free zone. Frozen fruit, on the other hand, was an easier sell, so we will be in smoothies for the foreseeable future. Probably. Ask Matron in a week.

Things we did stock up on were the things that everyone else stocked up on as well (hence the empty shelves): tinned chickpeas (salads, soups, curries), tinned tomatoes and tomato puree (pasta sauces), tinned beans of all varieties (salads, soups, chilli), pasta (of course, pasta, what kind of a stockpiler are you?), lentils, veg stock, and yes, Matron is not too proud too admit it, some tinned fruit. 

It’s not something we would normally buy, if life went on as was, and it did feel a bit “Famous Five and the Picnic on the Moors Infested with Post-War Baddies” ("Hmmm, why does food always taste better when you eat it outside?"). But again, there was enough memory or our respective grandmothers’ Christmas mandarin gateau left in us that we felt that, if push came to shove, tinned peaches were better than no peaches at all.

So that was the sensible side taken care of. But because we are foodie hedonists at heart, we did, of course, also buy the other stuff. Not too much of it (because, let’s face it, the shelf life of the hedonist stuff will always be markedly shorter than that of frozen spinach and is it really wise to gain ten pounds when there’s a plague on and people might eventually have to shift you from bed to bed?). 

So not “too much” but still enough to inject little moments of happiness into our daily commute from the bedroom to the study and the kitchen to the couch. There is chocolate, some crisps, a few biscuits (a few because they were also mostly sold out), love hearts, a packet of Vienetta (don’t judge!), a frozen Applestrudel and some custard. Enough for a midnight feat at Mallory Towers any day (or night).

There are also a few cans of coke, fruit juice, a few bottles of cider, beer and some wine. Unfortunately, the online wine merchant that Matron sometimes orders from has just temporarily closed up shop after sending out a, frankly self-defeating, marketing email reminding its customers that this was not a situation that they would want to see through sober. But Matron is full of hope that they will sort their little supply problem in good time, at which point she will of course join the other locusts.

Nobody is gonna die!

And then there is of course the final scenario. The one where we have all overreacted and the NHS will get a handle on this. Or at least the one where supermarkets will manage - through forward planning, a bit of light rationing and the judicious use of a sawn-off shotgun - to keep us all fed and watered to almost the same standard that we have grown accustomed to. What to do then, you ask, with all that frozen spinach?

Well, in our case, we have indeed planned to continue as was with our “normal” shopping habits, now that our personal food storage comfort level has more or less been met. Meaning normal sized weekly shops, including the sort of fresh fruit and vegetables (and dairy and non-dairy products) that we find on the shelves, while completely ignoring our hoarded pile as long as possible. 

Like everyone else, we have no idea for how long we will be able to do this. But it is probably true that the more people hit their own comfort quota and (hopefully) subsequently calm down about their food panic in the next couple of weeks, the more supermarkets will indeed be able to keep all of us fed and watered on a more regular basis. So with a bit of luck, we may yet come to the point where we actually have to start thinking of recipes that call for tinned mandarins. But if all else fails, there are foodbanks. And probably a lot of people that will likely only be too happy if you share your bounty with them, if you really don't want it. Just keep an eye on the use by dates.

And speaking of other people and how our own hoarding behaviour may affect them: this shouldn't need saying (and Matron genuinely tries not to judge, given that she herself has succumbed, at least partly, to the stockpiling mentality), but there is surely a line we should not cross. It is somewhere near the point, where our own buying behaviour means that other people - often people, who are not in the lucky situation that they can afford to bulk buy - will no longer have access to the food they need. 

It is normal to feel anxious for yourself and your family in these troubled times. But there are clearly enough people living among us, who are so unfamiliar with the concept of food security that having enough food for anything more than the next few hours is inconceivable. 

We must find a way to worry about those people, and try to support them, just as much as we worry about ourselves and ours. So, when you finished reading this blog, please find out from your local foodbank or homeless shelter just what you can do to help. Matron promises  that she will do the same. 

If this virus has shown us anything, it is that in this interconnected world, we are truly all in this together. But what kind of people we will be when we come out of this, depends on how we act now.

Stay well, stay safe, stay healthy!

* This line was shamelessly stolen from one of Matron's currently favourite cartoonists, Edith Pritchett, who does wonderful strips for Tortoise and on her own Insta. Check her out!