IT'S a good thing Pret a Manger is au fait with pickle - and jam - given the sticky situation in which the company's founder dropped the sandwich chain yesterday.

"Society will not recover if we do it [lockdown] again," Julian Metcalfe was quoted as saying in the Daily Mail, "To save a few thousand lives of very old or vulnerable people."

Let's re-phrase that. To save the lives of a few mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, asthmatics, the disabled, the pregnant, those with cancer. And... you get the idea.

The casual dismissiveness of "a few thousand" is quite spectacular.

Pity the poor social media manager dealing with the company Twitter account yesterday, having to spend the day emphasising that Pret does not support the sentiment. Mr Metcalfe sold his remaining stake in the business last year - though still owns a majority share in restaurant chain Itsu - but that didn't stop the company being bombarded yesterday by furious customers keen to stress their intention to institute a boycott.

It was interesting to see this clanger be a talking point at the same time a discussion on the issue of virtue signalling broke out.

Marcus Rashford, a child poverty campaigner and Manchester United footballer in his spare time, had posed the question "What is virtue signalling?" having been accused of it, and seen his supporters accused of it, due to his attempts to persuade the Tory government to feed hungry children during the school holidays.

The argument from detractors being that Mr Rashford and chums must only be affecting to care in order to make themselves look good. An empty gesture, merely to be seen to be on the side of right.

At the same time a new BBC social media policy was leaked, showing that BBC staff have to refrain from virtue signalling on their accounts.

"Virtue signalling" is a stablemate of "snowflake" - the sort of dismissive and divisive rhetoric that stifled debate and deep thinking. A bit rum to see the BBC using it in official policy.

It's certainly not an expression that could be applied to Mr Metcalfe. Which is interesting, because the founder of Pret has long made a show of being a caring, ethical employer.

In an interview back in 2001 he said it was vital for his managers to treat the people working for them with "sensitivity, fairness and honour." Pret ran all sorts of forward-thinking initiatives in its earlier days.

I remember working in a cafe directly opposite a branch of Pret. In the evenings, its staff would be bundling up left over food to be donated to homelessness charities while across the road we were ordered to take the sandwiches out of the packaging before binning them so desperate people couldn't rescue them from the rubbish.

That was under Mr Metcalfe's watch. Now he's making disparaging digs about the UK aping France's "socialist government" and casually bumping off swathes of society in order to protect croissant sales.

I'm being flippant there. His concern is for the viability of jobs - particularly those of young people - and business.

That's a reasonable concern and certainly a concern of the country entire, from the government to the people working in those jobs and benefitting from those services.

The tension throughout the pandemic has been of health versus wealth. There's no doubt that a section of society would prefer to see the economy protected at the expense of risking the health of those most vulnerable to the worst effects of coronavirus.

It just stops you in your tracks to see that put so bluntly in such a public manner. Especially now, at this moment, when the grave issue of the care given to elderly people during the pandemic's first wave is under such close scrutiny.

Deaths in care homes, elderly people being sent back to care homes following positive Covid-19 tests, is such a raw, present issue that it feels even more startling to see a business leader state a blunt preference for risking lives in particular groups.

It is, also, the groups he's chosen to eradicate that are the issue. It's difficult to imagine Metcalfe having been so comfortable writing off any other grouping of people. "A few thousand lives of women." "A few thousand lives of black people." "A few thousand lives of children".

Of course, "vulnerable" includes people from all these groups. But it's the confident dismissal of "very old" that causes a real double take.

This is, in large part, because we've failed to challenge the stereotypes around ageing and the elderly. I'm sure the businessman would make the argument that the elderly have had their turn and are therefore more expendable than the young or middle aged.

But we age differently now. Age, more than ever, is just a number. I mean, come on, in a few day's time America will vote in a new president from a choice of two septuagenarians - there will be a 74-year-old or a 78-year-old leader of the free world.

We coddle and patronise our older generation when so many are running marathons, still running businesses and running rings around people two thirds of their age.

In medical terms, someone who is elderly is more at risk of serious illness or death if infected with Covid-19. However, we hear 70-something or 80-something and still think of some frail, doddery, perm-and-pearls old duck rather than the reality of active, engaged, interested and interesting citizens. We're still feting Sir Captain Tom Moore and his efforts - it's a weird double think that sanctifies old people for fundraising while also accepts bumping them off for the greater good.

If you're going to casually suggest society sacrifices a proportion of the population for the good of the whole, then at least have the decency to see them for who and how they are. Though if you do that, you humanise them. And if you humanise them, they're much harder to go on without.

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