The perils of post

Safety guidelines on opening mail are likely to make people more nervous, not less.

Ray Crowley

Topics Politics

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I am currently jobbing as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery, and Friday is my day to open the post. Sounds straightforward enough – but when the world (even Hackney) is gripped by anthraxiety, opening post is anything but straightforward.

We were all asked to read Hackney Primary Care Trust’s Interim Guidance on Dealing with Mail and Packages, which has been ‘adapted by the Public Health Laboratory Service from guidance used by the New York City health department’.

Talk about fraying your nerves. Apparently, the following could be ‘suspect packages’: ‘envelopes that are lopsided, rigid, bulky, discoloured or have a strange odour’; any ‘letters with oily stains’; anything with ‘improper spelling of common names, places or titles’; and ‘unexpected envelopes from foreign countries’. We were told to be especially wary of ‘any letter or package that has suspicious or threatening messages written on it’. I suppose ‘I was going to send a fax but instead I sent anthrax’ might be one such example.

Once you identify a ‘suspect package’, you are reminded not to open it and to evacuate the room (if practical). Alternatively, you can ‘place the envelope in a plastic bag and place that in another bag and seal’ (poor seal – I thought they were a protected species).

Most importantly, you should ‘NOT take the letter/package to the police’. And if you do open a letter that contains suspicious material, ‘DO NOT PANIC’. Then comes the science bit: ‘Anthrax organisms can cause skin infection, gastrointestinal infection or pulmonary infection. To do so, the organism must be rubbed into damaged skin, swallowed or inhaled as a fine aerosolised mist. It does not leap into one’s body.’

‘Remember, don’t panic’, I thought as I opened the envelopes, attempting, as advised, to open the post with ‘a minimum of movement as to avoid spilling any contents’ – although my hands were shaking. Trying to check for smells, stains, lumps and spelling mistakes without moving the letters too much, and trying to open letters without touching them, meant I took twice as long to finish the job – doubling my possible exposure time.

I was on the verge of having a nervous breakdown – until I remembered I was only dealing with internal post.

If anything, these kind of guidelines make things worse, causing people to jump at shadows, misspellings and anything that pongs. And the advice on what to do if you do find a suspicious substance reminded me of the old Victoria Wood sketch about safety in the kitchen: ‘If your chip pan catches fire, it is not a good idea to pick it up and wave it around your head….’

Maybe Hackney Primary Care Trust should have included the most obvious precaution: ‘If you are sent some flour for your twenty-first birthday, but you are 42 and your birthday was in April, and the card attached says “love Osama”, do not use it to make cookies.’

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Topics Politics


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