In the early years of the First World War, a man out of uniform had a reasonable chance of being stopped in the street by a young woman and handed a white feather. This campaign of social shame encouraged those who had not yet enlisted to do so using white feathers as a symbol of cowardice. It may have had noble roots – encouraging everyone who could serve their country to do so – but it quickly became ugly.
Men who had come home for a few days’ leave, men discharged after being injured fighting, and men in exempted professions such as doctors and train drivers, were often handed feathers by indignant, self-righteous women who had come to regard the practice as a hobby. There are many tales of the humiliation of men already scarred by the horrors of war who were handed multiple feathers just on a peaceful walk through London. It came to the point where the government issued silver badges to indicate that the man in question had already served or was contributing to the war effort at home.
We are not asking people to sign up to fight in the trenches today, but to stay away from each other and wash their hands. That so many have chosen to ignore that is deeply troubling, particularly to those on the frontline of the NHS, or those who suffer from or have loved ones with serious health conditions. That someone would think going to a crowded pub, or hanging out in a group was more important than stopping the spread of a deadly virus is baffling. The more social pressure there is for all of us to realise that careless contact costs lives, the better.