Chill out

On the hottest day of the year, don't let the fear brigade bring you out in a sweat.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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As Britain braces itself for potentially the hottest day ever, with temperatures rising above the 35C mark, some are predicting a rash of absenteeism from work. ‘As many as 37 percent of workers could pull a “sickie”’, says the Daily Express, ‘putting their feet up in the garden’ instead of sweating it out in a stuffy office (1). Fear not – one group of British workers has raised its productivity massively over the past 48 hours: the scaremongering sector.

No sooner had the heatwave happened than risk managers, health experts and media miserabilists were rolling up their sleeves and warning us about ‘the dangers of heat’. ‘Sun is shining – don’t get sick’, said a headline on a London news website. ‘Rapid heartbeat? Muscle cramps? Vomiting? Coma?’, it asked its readers, overlooking the fact that readers in a heat-induced coma couldn’t possibly have answered. ‘These are just a few of the things that can happen to you if you get sunstroke….’ (2).

‘Glorious cloudless skies, days of unbroken sunshine’, started another article, conjuring up images of normally grey Britain enjoying some rare summer rays. But…. ‘Beware. Lurking just below the sunny surface is a whole raft of nasty heatwave hazards just waiting to catch the unsuspecting and unaware’ – hazards such as sunstroke, ‘an upsurge in asthma attacks’, a rise in heart failure, and dogs ‘literally being cooked alive’ by unwitting owners leaving them in parked cars (3). ‘Summer in Britain, it seems, is anything but simple’, the article warned (4).

To help us cope with the trauma of the hottest day, the Department of Health issued top 10 tips for keeping cool. ‘Stay in the shade or indoors’, it advised – the government’s solution to just about everything. But ‘if you can’t avoid being out in the sun, apply sunscreen (factor 15+) and wear a t-shirt, hat and sunglasses’ – particularly good advice for those who were thinking of digging out their old sheepskin coats and scarves (5).

The DoH had useful advice for office workers: ‘open windows where possible’ and ‘have breaks to get cold drinks’. Apparently, you should also ‘ventilate your home’, ‘keep a close eye on children’, and ‘avoid excessive physical exertion’ (6). The tips brought to mind comedienne Victoria Wood’s 1980s pisstake of government safety warnings: ‘If your chip pan catches fire, do not swing it around your head….’ To recap then: on the hottest day of the year, you shouldn’t wear heavy clothing and run around the park while neglecting to drink fluids or look after your kids. Got that?

Despite the warnings, Those Who Know Best are concerned that we still aren’t taking things seriously enough. According to one report, with parts of the country ‘basking in the sunshine, health experts warned people not to take the heat lightly’ (7). Perhaps they are perturbed by reports of young people recklessly taking the day off work to join The Sun’s bikini-clad lovelies on beaches around the country. They needn’t fret – UK coastguards have issued their own tips: ‘Be vigilant and watch out for the tides…. Beer and water don’t mix that well…. Enjoy the weather but don’t put yourself and other people in danger.’ (8)

Of course, experts never turn down an opportunity to berate parents – and apparently, ignorant mums and dads are endangering their kids’ lives during the heatwave. ‘Parents may be putting their children’s lives at risk because they are unaware of coastal dangers’, says a BBC report. ‘A poll for the government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) found that almost three-quarters of adults questioned did not know tides and currents could be dangerous.’ (9)

Just in time for the hot weather, MCA has launched the ’Sea Smart’ campaign, where ‘parents are being encouraged to check the weather and tides before leaving home and be especially vigilant when allowing children to use inflatables on the beach’ (10). The interfering risk police could never allow a fun beach trip to go unaccompanied by a not-so-fun guilt trip.

The experts agree that there are ‘hidden hazards’ in the hottest day, but they disagree over which is the most hazardous of all. At the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Dr Brian Harrison said the biggest danger is ‘breathlessness’, which makes this ‘the worst time of year for asthmatics’. His colleague Dr Tim Hankey disagreed, claiming that the big problem will likely be ‘people with gastro-enteritis, after eating under-cooked food from barbecues’ (only if they ignored the Department of Health’s tip number eight: ‘When barbecuing, always make sure you cook meat until it is piping hot….’) (11).

A third Norfolk doctor, Helen Adcock, claims that ‘excessive heat [has] potentially serious effects on health for all of us’, not just asthmatics and people who can’t cook. ‘If too much liquid and salt is lost from the body, heat exhaustion can occur’, she warns, with ‘symptoms being excessive sweating, nausea and vomiting, light-headedness, tiredness, headache and muscle cramps’ (12). If the asthma or pink meat don’t get you, the heat exhaustion might.

Down here in London, the hot weather has created big problems on the Underground. As the temperature rises the Tube has been made more unbearable still by a sticky and uncomfortable phenomenon: TV and newspaper reporters asking us how we feel. Everyone in London knows that the Tube is hot, that it gets hotter in the summer, that it’s hotter than the temperature at which it is legal to transport cattle, that it’s hot hot hot. The last thing we need are hacks asking us if we feel ‘hot?’, ‘how hot?’, ‘really hot?’, ‘sick?’, ‘depressed?’, looking for that exclusive ‘Passengers say they’re hot’ headline.

But the Tube has continued to gets its sweaty cargo into work – which is just as well, considering that, according to some reports, Britain’s hot weather also threatens economic crisis. ‘£280million meltdown’ says the Express, claiming that ‘businesses face a hefty bill for lost productivity, falling retail sales and transport disruption’ (13). Yet according to another report, the heatwave has ‘pushed up industrial output at its quickest pace in 11 months’, as ‘production by factories, utilities and mines jumped 0.7 percent, driven by a 7.8 percent increase in electricity’ (14). From meltdown to rising productivity in the space of a heatwave – perhaps economists are light-headed, having lost too much liquid and salt.

So who is to blame for Britain’s pesky heatwave? The Bush administration, apparently. ‘The climate must change’, declared an editorial in the Guardian, ‘and reform must start with America’ (15). According to the Guardian: ‘The pattern of industrial development of modern-day society appears to be producing too much pollution for the world to cope with. The effects will irrevocably remake the climate for the worse’ – and the ‘world’s greatest polluter [is] America’ (16).

Or it could be Russia that is to blame. The front page of today’s UK Independent declares: ‘One man can take the heat off. Will he heed the global warning?’ Apparently, Britain will continue to swelter in coming summers if Vladimir Putin and his government ‘do not soon ratify the Kyoto Protocol – the global warming treaty’. So just one signature from Putin will cool us all down? I think not.

The Earth does appear to be getting warmer, but whether that’s a consequence of man-made pollution is the subject of much dispute and debate. And why couldn’t we cope with a hotter climate – just as soon as we stop seeing a bit of warm weather as a threat to the kids, the economy and the health of the nation, that is?

Is the hot weather really ‘tangible evidence’ (as a Green Party spokesman put it) of global warming threatening to boil the planet? Mark Saunders, head of the Climate Prediction Group at University College London, is not so sure. He tells me: ‘In 2002, the UK and European summer was cool and wet, with severe floods in central Europe. The flooding was attributed to global warming. Now in 2003 the UK and European summer is warm and dry, the opposite of 2002, and this is also attributed to global warming. It seems there is a tendency to attribute any anomalous weather as evidence of global warming.’

‘Other parts of the world are currently not experiencing a warm or hot summer’, says Saunders. ‘In the USA, June 2003 was the sixth coldest June since records began in 1895. July 2003 was also colder than average in the US East. And the UK and northern European winter of 2002/2003 was one of the coldest for many years – no mention of global warming then.’

Yet according to John Houghton, head of the UK Met Office, the climate change currently heating things up in Britain and other parts of Europe is like a ‘weapon of mass destruction’: ‘Like terrorism, this weapon knows no boundaries. It can strike anywhere, in any form – a heatwave in one place, a drought or a flood or a storm surge in another.’ (17) So whether our rare bit of summery weather is courtesy of arrogant America or akin to a terrorist assault, the message is clear – it is a scary, alien force, which threatens our health, happiness and way of life. It’s official: the killjoys have taken over the season.

Small wonder that people from countries where they have proper hot weather – like, say, 45C rather than 35 – are mocking us miserable Brits. ‘[Britain] is on high alert’, writes Vijay Dutt in the Hindustan Times – ‘not against al-Qaeda, but the terror from heat’ (18). ‘Even the Royalty has had problems’, laughs Dutt. ‘Prince Charles began addressing workers at the largest engineering firm in Scotland with a side remark to an employee: “It’s bloody hot.” Now you know what the heatwave is doing to the polite people of this isle….’ (19)

It is coming to something when the hottest day of the year, finally some decent weather, is accompanied by endless health warnings, patronising tips and anti-American doom and gloom-mongering. My top tip for the heatwave is: if you like hot weather, go out and enjoy it; and if you don’t, sit in the shade. Just don’t let yourself be made hot and bothered by the fear brigade.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sun, sea and scaremongering

(1) ‘£280million meltdown’, Daily Express, 6 August 2003

(2) Sun is shining – don’t get sick, This is London, 6 August 2003

(3) Experts warn of heat wave hazards, EDP24, 4 August 2003

(4) Experts warn of heat wave hazards, EDP24, 4 August 2003

(5) ‘How to stay cool’, Guardian, 6 August 2003

(6) ‘How to stay cool’, Guardian, 6 August 2003

(7) Experts warn of heat wave hazards, EDP24, 4 August 2003

(8) Heat is on, Teeside Evening Gazette, 5 August 2003

(9) Parents ‘unaware’ of sea dangers, BBC News, 28 July 2003

(10) Parents ‘unaware’ of sea dangers, BBC News, 28 July 2003

(11) Experts warn of heat wave hazards, EDP24, 4 August 2003

(12) Experts warn of heat wave hazards, EDP24, 4 August 2003

(13) ‘£280million meltdown’, Daily Express, 6 August 2003

(14) UK’s heat wave cooks industrial output, Bloomberg, 6 August 2003

(15) The climate must change, Guardian, 6 August 2003

(16) The climate must change, Guardian, 6 August 2003

(17) The climate must change, Guardian, 6 August 2003

(18) Londoners feel the heat, Hindustan Times, 6 August 2003

(19) Londoners feel the heat, Hindustan Times, 6 August 2003

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Topics Politics


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