Arriving in Germany early one Saturday afternoon with a mild headache, I asked the hotel receptionist where I could find a pharmacist. She gave me clear and precise directions at length, with estimates of the time taken by different routes and different modes of transport. Thanking her, I turned to leave but, as I was stepping outside, she added: "But it is closed until Monday."
Here in the Anglo-Saxon world, we have almost forgotten what it is to like not to have services on instant tap. We expect supermarkets to be open at all hours and, increasingly, we expect the same of the public sector. This, it is said, is what "customers" want. For example, patients want GPs' surgeries to be open in the evenings and weekends for their "convenience". Likewise, schools are instructed to stay open at least 10 hours a day for parents' "convenience". I belong to a generation that thought of "a public convenience" as a place where you answered what was known as a call of nature. But that is not the only reason why I sympathise with Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, who complained this month about parents who wanted to "dump" their children at school all day.
Whose convenience are we talking about here? Certainly not the children's. They are the true "consumers" of education and, if asked, I doubt they would choose to spend 10 hours a day in school. The worst thing about boarding school, as 100 memoirs testify, was not being torn from the parental bosom, but the closed environment, with its rigid routines, its organised activities and its unchanging pupil pecking orders. Children sometimes want a bit of solitude. Immature personalities need space to develop.
No, the real beneficiary of schools and health centres being open at all hours is private business. Is anyone suggesting schools should keep charge of children until the early evening so that parents can extend a pleasant afternoon in the garden or spend more time studying medieval Italian architecture? Of course not. The idea is that they should be at work. Perish the thought that any UK citizen should be inhibited from becoming a full-time productive unit. Or that a company should lose a single hour of profit-making activity because an employee needs to consult a doctor, or that it should adjust its working practices to accommodate people who have school-age children. Teachers have spent decades trying to convince the public that their functions are not purely custodial. Now ministers are telling them to offer dawn-to-dusk childcare on demand. Perhaps they will soon be required to provide overnight accommodation for children whose parents are away from home on business trips or provide services in some other 24-hour outfit.
Keeping schools and surgeries open for longer hours will have two consequences. First, employers will expect their workers to use the new services and refuse to grant time off for medical appointments or to agree special arrangements for working parents. Second, small schools and small practices won't be able to provide the extended hours. Their economic viability will be threatened because some parents and patients will go elsewhere. Third, somebody will have to staff these places in the evenings. Employees will be pressurised into working later and longer hours. That in turn will create demand for yet more round-the-clock services. There is really no end to it.
Yes, I know it is usually women who have to take responsibility for children and that, sometimes, long hours of childcare are necessary if they are to provide adequately for their families or maintain a professional career. But it is time we stopped trying to adapt family life to the needs of work and started to make work adapt to the needs of the family. The Government promises new laws giving working parents more rights to seek flexible hours. The move is long overdue.
Peter Wilby, former editor of the 'New Statesman' and 'The Independent on Sunday'.