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Case Studies

Coronavirus: the need for ID

If only there were an identity badge for idiots! writes Mark Rowe.

So that, after every Facebook posting from a self-appointed expert, sporting some conspiracy theory or fake news pulled off the internet, it said “user name – IDIOT”. Or, while walking around the supermarket, you could see who the idiots were, stocking up on tinned soup that will sit in their cupboards until past the expiry date and will get thrown in the bin, in 2022. The idiocy arising from the virus is enough to make you cry – but do it silently, as the supermarket shelves empty of tissues have not been re-stocked.

It’s a joke, but it goes to show the utility of a badge, an identifier. For one thing it allows you to aggregate; if society’s percentage of card-carrying idiots is 0.1 per cent, society can manage; if 10pc, it might have to do something about it. In the real world, we know the use of a police warrant card. Note the difference between that and a business card that police hand out, that will say ‘this is not a proof of identity’, acknowledging that someone might misuse the business card to impersonate a police officer. An ID, then, not only identifies, allows the bearer to do things that others may not; it prevents fraud.

Another example; the NHS card, like the card railway workers must hold to work trackside, an occupational badge. During the coronavirus lockdown, NHS workers may show their NHS ID for preferential entry to a supermarket, ahead of the day’s panic-buyers. Presumably for elderly people who may also be let in early, their face is their identifier. Proof of ID, then, is basic to life, in normal times and during the virus outbreak. It’s an example of how the virus brings out the truth that the basic difference is between those that are rooted in reality and those that are not. For example, the supermarket that said it would prioritise the vulnerable-elderly in its online ordering for delivery, except that its online form had no way of asking for a person’s age. And if an idiot claimed they were 97, what means did the supermarket have in practice to check?

As an aside, are supermarket staff trained in checking NHS IDs for authenticity, and do any of us, not with police experience, have a clue what a warrant card looks like, if someone in plain clothes claiming to be a cop showed such a thing.

The flurry of comment by industry bodies when the ‘critical worker’ definition – of importance for sending children of such workers to school, if necessary to enable shift working – appears to have ended with Security Industry Authority chief executive Ian Todd’s comments on the SIA website of March 23 and 26; that the definition does not extend to all SIA licence holders, but only those that fall under ‘national security’, border security and other categories. He is correct, and what I am about to say is no criticism of him or the SIA; as Ian Todd says, questions of whether you are a critical worker or not, and whether you need stay at home or not, are ‘not easy and no-one else can answer them for you’.

Except that for holders of the police warrant card and NHS card, the same questions appear automatically answered in their favour. Even though in pre-virus times we were forever told that the NHS had too many managers who did no actual useful work. But now everyone in the NHS is a hero, even the administrators, the sorts (who are in many workplaces) who, if they take a holiday, no-one notices.

The point is that if you show a school a police warrant card or an NHS card, no matter how non-front-line your job, a school will give you the nod, and take your child. If you are a critical SIA badge holder, the school – or rather the head teacher or other gate-keeper – may let your child in, or may not, depending on how kind they are, or their mood, or if you don’t explain yourself well enough. The security-ID, the identifier, is not working, to make life simple for the ID-holder and the gate-keeper alike.

True, if you are a doorman with an SIA badge, and pubs are closed, you have no work and are self-evidently not ‘critical’; except that you may outside of Friday and Saturday nights work as a guard. To say you guard trading estates in Slough and Farnborough might sound unimportant; except that you may be guarding data centres that the 21st century relies on, including maybe for the ability to read this article. Who’s to say what SIA-badge wearer’s work is critical and what not? Sure, an upmarket women’s clothing shop is not that essential, until it’s robbed or looted, meaning that its key-holder is essential. As police for decades have left routine commercial property protection to private industry – why else the push to reduce false intruder alarms? – are police forces during the virus-lockdown suddenly looking after retail and business parks?

No two crises are alike. In the petrol tanker drivers’ strike of 2000, when a similar list of essential workers was released, that had priority for fuel supplies, industry bodies such as the BSIA had to lobby when private security was not included. The BSIA’s case was then that cash in transit, for example, was crucial. Not so in 2020, when either retail is shuttered or supermarkets are asking customers to pay contactless, if they can, for the sake of public health.

Admittedly, arguably, 2020 is an advance on 2000; private security is, in pieces, acknowledged as essential. Or, this case does show a lack of progress made, despite the SIA regime, in the private security sector impressing its worth upon the authorities. If there is blame for that, it’s to be shared around the industry for not making the case to government, and indeed the authorities for not appreciating private security. As an aside, that Cabinet Office list of ‘critical workers’ does not really capture the diversity of 21st century services. Gone are the days when the 999 services, the railways, food and drink and banks, were the only necessities.

The SIA badge, then, has been shown to lack the power of other badges. Talking of power, a striking feature of the virus-lockdown has already been the power of the coercive state – or rather, the state remarkably quickly, smoothly and naturally gave itself the options to be coercive; the next topic.


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