‘Stay at home. Stock enough food for your family. Make sure you have plenty of strong disinfection and toilet paper.’
Is this a response to the Coronavirus pandemic?
No, this was advice from the UK government in the early 1980’s. It was set out in the leaflet, Protect and Survive, available for sale to those who wanted to buy it. However, in the event of a serious nuclear threat, it was to be distributed free to every household. Protect and Survive was adapted for television as a series of twenty short public information films. The films were classified, and only intended for transmission on all television channels if the government determined a nuclear attack was likely within 72 hours. However, recordings leaked and the BBC broadcast them in a documentary on Panorama in March 1980.
Today the leaflet makes alarming reading. It was clearly written from the view that a nuclear attack was a genuine threat and people needed to be prepared. We will never know how likely it was, but it was certainly perceived as a threat across the world.
THE ATTACK WARNING
When an air attack is expected the sirens will sound a rising and falling note.
The warning will also be broadcast on the radio.
THE FALL-OUT WARNING
When there is danger from fall-out you will hear three loud bangs or three whistles in quick succession.
When the immediate danger from both air attack and fall-out has passed, the sirens will sound a steady note.
The longer you spend in your refuge and your fall-out room after a fall-out warning the less the danger to your lives.
The threat of nuclear war was very real to people in the UK, and the message from the government under Maggie Thatcher was ‘people need to be prepared.’
I was twenty-six, a young mum with three children under the age of four. Protect and Survive became my Bible. The leaflet told me how to make my home and my family as safe as possible in the event of nuclear attack.
Under my bed I stowed a cardboard box filled with tinned food. Each day I listened to the news and avidly read newspaper reports telling me how to ensure my family survived. I hoarded black sacks. Why? Because we’d need to fill them with earth.
‘Even the safest room in your home is not safe enough. You will need to block up windows in the room, and to make the outside walls thicker, and also to thicken the floor above you, to provide the strongest possible protection against the penetration of radiation. Thick, dense materials are the best, and bricks, concrete or building blocks, timber, boxes of earth, sand, books, and furniture might all be used.’
The initial forty-eight hours after the attack were to be spent in the safest place in our home. The leaflet told us how to create a fall-out room, this nuclear-proof den would be our inner sanctuary.
‘Still greater protection is necessary in the fall-out room, particularly for the first two days and nights after an attack when the radiation dangers could be critical. To provide this you should build an inner refuge. This too should be thick-lined with dense materials to resist the radiation and should be built away from the outside walls.’
The leaflet suggested we use doors from rooms above to create an indoor lean-to. We might even use a table if it was large enough, surrounding the den with heavy furniture filled with sand, earth, books or clothing. Best of all, and this was my preferred option, a cupboard under the stairs, with bags of earth or sand on the stairs and along the walls of the cupboard.
The government encouraged us to stockpile:
‘Stock enough food for fourteen days.
Choose foods which can be eaten cold, which keep fresh, and which are tinned or well wrapped. Keep your stocks in a closed cabinet or cupboard.
Provide variety. Stock sugar, jams or other sweet foods, cereals, biscuits, meats, vegetables, fruit and fruit juices. Children will need tinned or powdered milk, and babies their normal food as far as is possible. Eat perishable items first. Use your supplies sparingly.’
Like many people, I’ve been judging the people panic buying during the Coronavirus crisis: ‘Those selfish, greedy people just looking out for themselves.’ But, in recent days, as my anxiety has increased with each news bulletin, I remember how I felt back in the early 80’s and, whilst I in no way encourage or condone panic buying, I can understand the behaviour.
In the 80’s the government also advised us to store water:
‘You will need enough for the family for fourteen days. Each person should drink two pints a day – so you will need three and a half gallons each.
You should try to stock twice as much water as you are likely to need for drinking, so that you will have enough for washing. You are unlikely to be able to use the mains water supply after an attack – so provide your drinking water beforehand by filling bottles for use in the fall-out room. Store extra water in the bath, in basins and in other containers.’
And, relevant to the empty shelves we now find in all our stores, they told us we’d need toiletry items:
‘Toilet articles including soap, toilet rolls, bucket and plastic bags.’
We were encouraged to build a first aid kit as there’d be no access to the NHS:
‘First aid kit – with household medicines and prescribed medicines, aspirins or similar tablets, adhesive dressings, cotton wool, bandages, disinfectant, ointment, including Vaseline.’
If we were ‘lucky’ enough to survive the initial stage, the heat and the blast, the following days would bring fallout dust carrying radiation sickness. Like Coronavirus they told us:
‘It cannot be seen or felt. It has no smell…. Exposure can cause sickness and death.’
My sister and I remember a conversation with a young man. He said when the alarm sounded, he’d go into his garden and watch the fireworks. As young mums with little children, we were horrified. All we wanted to do was to protect our families.
For fourteen days we knew we’d be completely isolated, but what sort of world would we have emerging into? After twelve weeks plus of self-isolating, what sort of world will exist after Covid 19?
There are some environmental positives. Maps reveal significant drops in pollution levels above China and Italy. The reduction in travel and particularly grounding flights must surely have reduced our carbon output?
And this time we’re not completely isolated. Okay, most of us received good wishes for Mother’s Day over Facetime, and I desperately missed hugs and kisses, but humanity is coming up trumps. A generation of caring, supportive people are emerging locally. Always there, they now come to the fore, using Facebook and Whatsapp, even dropping notes through doors, offering to collect shopping, medicines or just be there for a chat. Heroic efforts are being made by our NHS professionals, emergency services and key workers. Our government and our scientists work around the clock, seeking solutions and making difficult decisions. And let’s not forget the delivery drivers and the cashiers on the checkouts, some sadly subjected to abuse on a daily basis.
I can’t hug my grandchildren, I can’t see my loved ones, but we can stay in touch remotely, and now there’s time to contact the old friends I haven’t spoken to in ages.
‘This too will pass’
Meanwhile let’s be kind to each other. Hopefully most of us will emerge on the other side, perhaps with a changed perspective. We’ll recognize what’s important to us, we’ll have greater respect for our planet and perhaps we’ll reassess the way we live our lives.