A medical adviser to the government has today said that they may have to re-think their coronavirus strategy, admitting that the policy of home confinement has in fact exacerbated the situation.
According to Dr Jolyon Brakespeare of St Thomas’ Hospital London, ‘People now have time on their hands and, sadly, some automatically reach for their phones. This is far worse than the email problem back in the 1980s. When email first arrived we were threatened with an epidemic of so-called “funny emails”. It got quite serious at one point, especially with the very nasty “copy to all” variant, but at least it was mainly confined to office workers, particularly civil servants and those in large corporations. Sacking a few people and then educating the public about using spam filters meant that the problem seemed to be under control.’
Some scientists warned, however, that the threat had not gone away and that email was effectively a “gateway application” that would lure innocent people on to the internet, ill-prepared for the addictive software freely available there.
Sadly, it now appears that these fears have been confirmed. Dr Brakespeare again: ‘It’s a familiar story. They start when they’re young with Facebook and think “I can handle this. A few holiday snaps, a bit of bants with my mates, where’s the harm in that?”’
Then came WhatsApp.
Dr Brakespeare says that the biggest danger with WhatsApp is its ease of use. Even the elderly, some of whom have said they wouldn’t go near the internet, are now joining in. ‘It’s growing like wildfire. Single cells, i.e. individual users, can quickly form clusters and those within the cluster can immediately start transmitting to each other. One person sends a video clip or newspaper cutting and the whole group can instantly see it. The problem starts when each cell within the cluster passes the clip on to members of other clusters to which it belongs, and so on. Within a few hours a video clip can be halfway around the world. Some of these clips can be three or four minutes long. Think of the thousands of hours of people’s time this can take up.’
The doctor highlights two other potential problems. Firstly, addiction: ‘Some people spend hours looking at their phones waiting for a new clip to arrive so that they can immediately pass it on. I know of cases where if there is a quiet period they will start re-sending old clips again hoping that people won’t notice.’
Then there is what Dr Brakespeare refers to as Repetitive Viral Messaging Syndrome. ‘Some of the video clips are, of course, very funny, but many of them are variants of old jokes or slightly adapted versions of related video clips. The trouble is that you often have to watch the clip before realising that you have seen it or something very like it before. People with RVMS experience a feeling of tension when a new message arrives, which then turns into violent rage when they realise that they are watching “old ladies fighting over bog roll in Croydon supermarket” for the fifteenth time. Phones get smashed, cats kicked and loved ones abused. It’s nightmarish.’
The doctor has a radical but simple solution to the problem. ‘Open the pubs again and encourage people to visit them. Give them free beer or wine vouchers on condition that they hand their phones to a member of staff on arrival. It’s my belief that the danger from actually catching the virus is significantly less than the psychological damage caused by wanton WhatsAppery. And besides, if you do get it you’ll be too hungover to care.’