EDITORIAL – 27th March 2020


Reading my daily Times earlier this week (online of course), I was stumped by a question in the daily quiz as to what a vexillologist collects. The answer, as you will all know, is ‘flags’. Vexillology is the ‘study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags’ and last year it was revealed that Britain’s biggest collector of flags is a retired painter and decorator from Cheltenham who lives in a bungalow, has 4 flag poles (two at the front of the house and two at the back) and owns 680 flags!

Truth told, it rather got me thinking.

Legend has it that the great Mongol empire ruler, Genghis Khan, when laying siege to a city which he desired to occupy, would fly a succession of coloured flags as the deadline for his demand to the inhabitants to lay down their arms and open the city doors drew ever nearer. When only 24 hours remained, the black flag was lofted and it signalled,… well, let’s just say that Covid19 would be the least of the inhabitants problems if they didn’t open the doors! Interestingly, it was the Mongols who invented semaphore – the flag system for conveying silent messages over great distances. They knew the power of a flag.

And so to today when no sporting or government occasion is complete without banners and flags being flown to send various messages. One only has to go back a few short months to understand the significance of a royal blue flag with 12 yellow stars upon it!

In various organisations terms including the word ‘flag’ are common, with the NHS and social care referring to ‘red flag’ symptoms or circumstances which should always arouse concern and trigger further investigation. Even now, we have youngsters who are staying at home in the current pandemic displaying in their front windows what we might describe as a flag – a picture of a rainbow – to impart a little happiness in people who may be passing and who glance at the window.

The fact is that flags are powerful. They convey a range of emotions and signify all sorts of loyalties, beliefs and principles – sometimes good, sometimes evil.

In the current Covid19 crisis, flags play an important role. Many community volunteer groups have set up systems whereby frail older people can display a red flag / poster in their window, signifying ‘I’m OK’ to a black one signifying ‘I need help’ (there are many other variants).

So my question is, how good are you at spotting flags that are being flown but may not be immediately obvious? That volunteer who has been working for well over 4 hours marshalling people arriving at A&E and is looking tearful. The chemotherapy manager who is struggling to maintain the service and looks short of sleep. The single parent critical care nurse whose children’s school has just closed and has anxiety written all over her face.

You know the flags that I am talking about and they don’t flutter in the breeze.

Right now, in this time of national emergency, your ability as a manager in health and social care to see those flags and respond properly to their call has never been more critical. The very best leaders understand that the most important attribute that you can display to your followers is that you show a genuine concern for them. And right now, you will have followers who need that attribute more than ever before. Perhaps its time for all of us to become vexillologists.

If you have any comments, feedback or examples that you would like to share, do please email me personally: jwilks@ihm.org.uk

Stay safe, stay healthy and thank you for the great job you are all doing.

Jon Wilks

Chief Executive