ROBERT HARDMAN: Ban on singing national anthem at armistice events shows Covid threatens our sanity


As if this week’s threats of police raids on over-sized Christmas Day gatherings were not barmy enough, then along comes something even sillier: a ban on singing the national anthem.

Even the Welsh Government’s comedy order prohibiting the sale of kettles does not come close to the absurdity of forbidding loyal ex-servicemen and women and even members of the Royal Family from singing God Save The Queen in the days ahead.

It is merely the latest example of how coronavirus does not merely threaten the health of the vulnerable, but the sanity of us all.

Tomorrow week – Remembrance Sunday – is the most sacred date in the national calendar. By all means, feel free to head for a supermarket that day – as well as the pub, the gym and even the golf club in many parts of Britain.

However, if you are planning to turn up at a war memorial for the traditional service and two-minute silence at 11am, hold your horses. 

The Queen is pictured with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a National Service to make the centenary of the Armistice at Westminster Abbey in 2018 [File photo]

(L-R) Pince William, Prince Harry, Meghan Duchess of Sussex and Catherine Duchess of Cambridge attend the 2018 event [File photo]

(L-R) Pince William, Prince Harry, Meghan Duchess of Sussex and Catherine Duchess of Cambridge attend the 2018 event [File photo]

Queen Elizabeth is pictured with Camilla Duchess of Cornwall (L) and Catherine Duchess of Cambridge (R) at a ceremony to mark Remembrance Sunday in London last year [File photo]

Queen Elizabeth is pictured with Camilla Duchess of Cornwall (L) and Catherine Duchess of Cambridge (R) at a ceremony to mark Remembrance Sunday in London last year [File photo]

Because special rules apply. Not only must numbers be ‘minimised’, there is a ban on ‘communal singing’. In many places, ceremonies have simply been cancelled. In others, they are closed to all but a few local representatives.

To read the new rules for next weekend, you sense that officialdom regards Remembrance Sunday like Cup Final day or Halloween – just another irksome, public order issue that needs some tight controls. Astonishingly, it turns out the Government has not even drafted its own legislation correctly.

The latest Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 bolted on to the 1984 Public Health Act dictate what commemorative events may take place and how. Legally, councils can authorise a ceremony only if ‘the gathering takes place to commemorate Remembrance Sunday’.

This is nonsense. We do not gather to ‘commemorate Remembrance Sunday’. We gather on Remembrance Sunday to commemorate our war dead, not the day itself. This is just sloppy legislation. If the Government can’t even word its own rules accurately, then how the hell can they expect the rest of us to observe them?

The official ministerial guidance to local authorities is blunt and wholly negative. Organisers are repeatedly ordered to ‘keep numbers to a minimum’, to ‘take reasonable steps to ensure the public attend alone’ and to take everyone’s details.

We all accept these are exceptional times. But this is not just another annual tradition.

The Queen appears to wipe her eye during a Remembrance Day ceremony in London in 2019 [File photo]

The Queen appears to wipe her eye during a Remembrance Day ceremony in London in 2019 [File photo]

For millions, Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day are hallowed days of obligation, occasions when we make an effort to honour those who gave their all for our freedoms. For many, who are still mourning loved ones killed in the line of duty, it is a day of great sadness and pride. The Government has urged people to stay at home and switch on the telly. But for countless people, that is simply not going to suffice.

Where is the common sense here? Everyone accepts the need for social distancing. And the sort of people who turn up at remembrance events do not behave like people piling out of bars at a 10pm curfew or protesters in Trafalgar Square. They come in the quiet expectation of dignity and solemnity. Above all, most services of commemoration are outside. It is why many veterans are dismayed that the traditional open-air Royal British Legion parade at the Cenotaph has virtually disappeared.

The turnout of politicians will be the same but that eternally poignant march-past of ex-servicemen and women is off. Obviously, a parade of 10,000 veterans – watched by huge crowds – is out of the question.

However, the Legion had been planning a Covid-compliant alternative. Last month, charities such as Blind Veterans UK were offered ten socially distanced places in a much-reduced parade. All representatives would have to be ‘physically fit’ and ‘have the ability to march for 45 minutes’ without escorts or wheelchairs. There would be no room for carers. But at least it was something. The Legion had worked out it could accommodate about 2,000 veterans at well-regulated intervals.

Then Public Health England weighed in. That number has now been reduced to just 30 able-bodied veterans. Everyone else wishing to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph can do so online or by mail order.

A Remembrance Day event at place at the Cenotaph in Westminster in 2018 is pictured with numerous veterans in attendance [File photo]

Meanwhile, the Met Police are preparing rigorous counter-measures to deter any passers-by from dawdling. Large white screens are to be erected at either end of Whitehall to block the view. ‘Move along now, nothing to see here. Just the Queen on her balcony…’

Quite apart from the oppressive sense of overkill, has anyone paused to contemplate what sort of message all these restrictions are sending out? From the outset, the official mindset has got it all wrong. Rather than finding constructive ways to help people commemorate safely and sensibly, the priority has been to shoo them elsewhere. Let them go shopping or drinking instead.

At the same time, people are still banned from ‘communal singing’ in line with the edict from the Ministry of Housing and Communities.

Following the Government’s latest U-turn allowing VIPs to sing at the Cenotaph, officials have hinted that the rules may now be changed for outdoor – but not indoor – ceremonies. As of last night, however, the blanket singing ban remained in place on the Government website.

Crowds usually throng to see the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall. Pictured here in 2019

Crowds usually throng to see the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall. Pictured here in 2019

The ruling has hit other major events. All the Armed Forces taking part in next Saturday’s Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall – which will be screened on BBC1 – must remain mute. ‘There is no singing by anyone other than the choir and the individual artists,’ a Legion spokesperson explained.

Speaking for millions of veterans and their families, no doubt, the President of the Merchant Navy Association, Vivien Foster, sums it all up in one word: ‘Ridiculous’.

Elsewhere, the public are left wondering where and how they are allowed to pay their respects.

Truro in Cornwall will have a small invitation-only ceremony at the cathedral. Coventry is among many places holding its official ceremony online. Many towns and villages have taken their lead from the Government and simply cancelled their ceremonies.

Not so much the Last Post as the last straw.

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