Metrified – or petrified? The return of imperial measures is the ghost of a dead cat

While there is no chance of a return, Pippa Musgrave, Head of Trade Standards, explains why nostalgia for Imperial measures is a diversion from Brexit concerns

Newspaper headlines last week suggested Boris Johnson intended to restore Imperial weights and measures as part of the UK’s “post-EU freedoms”.

As a qualified inspector of weights and measures, I was closely involved in the last acts of metrics in 1999 and the subsequent “metric martyr” court cases, and believed that the reintroduction of Imperial units – a policy that even Nigel Farage disowned as “drivel” in 2011 – had been tossed in the dustbin of history. Why?

First, there is the Cost of such a reintroduction. Local Trading Standards authorities have suffered significant budget cuts over the past decade, ranging from 40% to 70%. Metrology test equipment doesn’t come cheap. A local standard weight can cost up to £ 10,000. An inspector’s standard working weight box costs £ 3,000. A local standard mass comparator costs around £ 30,000. Even an inspector’s standard working tape measure costs £ 1,000 to certify.

And it’s not just the cost to the law enforcement community. There is a significant cost to the industry. Since the abandonment of the imperial system, certificates of approval for imperial equipment have lapsed. The cost of certification can reach several thousand euros, especially for complex systems such as supermarket checkouts, EPOS software and liquid fuel measuring devices.

Then it is necessary re-educate the population on how to use the imperial system. Imperial units have not been taught in schools since the mid-1970s. Who is going to pay for the new elementary lessons on feet, thumbs, stones and gills?

Then there is the confusion to operate two systems simultaneously. It would be an opportunity for unscrupulous traders to defraud their customers, but that’s not all – double-measuring systems can lead to horrific cases. I have previously led a project to investigate the use of weighing equipment in the NHS and private hospitals. This followed a case in which a teenager with cancer received a fatal dose of radiation therapy. The reason for the fatal dose was that the teenager’s nurse weighed her patient on an imperial scale and miscalculated the metric dose of the drug.

Boris Johnson speaks of “World Britain”, but reintroducing imperial measures is isolationist policy. It would put Britain on the same side as Myanmar and North Korea

A brief history of metrification

In 2019, Ian Hoey, head of legal metrology at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said that ‘deviating from the metric system would introduce significant barriers to trade, negatively affect the free movement of goods and undermine the UK’s position in as a signatory. of the METER convention ”.

Indeed, the metric has never been a policy linked to the UK’s accession to the EU. The roots of politics run much deeper.

The United Kingdom first committed to adopting a single system of measurements – SI units – in 1856. Metric measurements became legal for commercial use in the United Kingdom in 1875. The use of metric units for commercial science and medicine is government policy that dates back to the 19th century. .

Hoey also said in his report to the government that every year £ 622 billion in mass merchandise-related trade takes place in the UK. With this significant amount of trade, the added complexity of reintroducing Imperial units would mean higher costs and less choice for consumers and businesses.

Boris Johnson speaks of “World Britain”, but reintroducing imperial measures is isolationist policy. It would put Britain on the same side as Myanmar and North Korea. Yes, the United States uses the Imperial, but its measures have subtle differences. Joining NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), in which Canada and Mexico use the metric system, means there is increased visibility of metric units in America.

Johnson’s announcement was an attempt to deviate; a “dead cat” thrown on the table to avoid a record rise in inflation and lingering supply chain problems. However, he should remember that dead cats only bounce once. The foul corpse of this particular feline has long rotted.

For 25 years, Pippa Musgrave has been a business standards professional. She is a Qualified Weights and Measures Inspector, Qualified Food Standards Inspector and Trade Standards Officer, and a full member of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute.


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