Remember hope? “Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops at all,” as the poet Emily Dickinson put it.
For almost eight months now, we have been in a state of profound hope-deprivation. Hopes were still quite high when it was “three weeks to squash the sombrero”. Grimly, we clung onto hope when the Prime Minister said he had a roadmap for “a more significant return to normality by November”. Come November, on the basis of the Arthur Daley of second-hand graphs, he announced that the roadmap led to the cul-de-sac of Lockdown 2. By now, Hope had lost all of its feathers and was lying at the bottom of the budgie cage pecking its breast compulsively, unlikely to take wing ever again.
And then came the vaccine. Yes, it’s still early days. No, they haven’t tested it on very many people. Yes, those people may not include the elderly or those with pre-existing conditions. No, the Pfizer vaccine doesn’t prevent infection. Yes, but it did have 90 per cent success in stopping the virus from emerging by readying the body to fight it off. No, we can’t yet be sure how safe it will be. Yes, but it will reduce the R rate because it will shorten the period of infectivity, and if we never hear about bloody R rate again, it will be too soon.
The “toot” of the cavalry’s bugle is what Boris called this remarkable scientific achievement at his Monday press briefing. If the PM was a bit muted, many of us could hear the whole damn band striking up and our hearts, kept behind bars for so long, dared to soar. “It shows you can make a vaccine against this little critter,” beamed Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the Government’s vaccine task force. At least, I assume he was beaming. I certainly was.
What Sir John didn’t say, because it would have looked like tasteless gloating, is that, for once, the Government has not made a hash of things. It got in early with Pfizer/BioNtech and placed an order for 40 million doses of the vaccine, with up to 10 million presumed to arrive by December – the first agreement the firms signed with any country. That is the political equivalent of emptying a whole supermarket of loo rolls and bagging the holy grail of an Ocado Christmas delivery. Well done, chaps – superb, sharp-elbowed work getting us to the front of the queue!
A GP I interviewed for this week’s Planet Normal podcast told me that, from the start of December, doctors have been put on standby to vaccinate patients from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week, up to and including Christmas Day. The truth is, she said, that Covid cases in London were right down. She hadn’t heard of any for weeks.
Even before the vaccine announcement, and before lockdown began last Thursday, it was pretty clear that infections had either peaked, or at least started to flatten in most regions. Shameless propaganda about hospital bed occupancy was unmasked by courageous staff who were embarrassed by this deception on the public. The broadcast media, by contrast, did its best to keep “the NHS will be overwhelmed” paranoia going.
On Monday, BBC health editor Hugh Pym reported on an apparent crisis at the Royal Derby hospital. An NHS source assured me that, despite having an influx of Covid patients at the weekend (which is now starting to slow), that hospital is reporting 20 per cent bed availability and ITU usage is about half what it was in April for Covid patients.
How long do you reckon it will be before the TV news stops shroud-waving and starts to acknowledge that the reporting of a virus from which 99.6 per cent of people make a full recovery should be kept in proportion? How long before we are given permission to hope?
The same question could be asked of our leaders, some of whom have enjoyed the exercise of draconian powers rather too much (yes, you, Hancock). Similarly, scientists will be reluctant to have their moment in the limelight extinguished, while certain NHS managers have looked on Covid as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to keep patients out of hospital so they can balance their budgets and earn even bigger bonuses. I have read reports that some in Whitehall are already saying that, even once the Pfizer vaccine has been given to the over-70s, strict social distancing will have to be maintained because there is still potential for the NHS to be overwhelmed.
No, no, NO! We simply cannot allow these bureaucrats and scientists to fashion some new normal in their own drone-like, desiccated image. The roll-out of the vaccine must mark the end of all restrictions. This medical and social experiment on our society must stop at the earliest opportunity.
You know, I’m not sure that our Covid-obsessed Government has begun to appreciate the fearful harm its measures have wrought. According to one expert, lockdown will end up costing the equivalent of 560,000 lives because of the health impact of the “deep and prolonged recession” which is about to hit us. Prof Philip Thomas of Bristol University says the toll will exceed that of the UK’s military and civilian losses in the Second World War. If lockdown was once a necessary evil, it is no longer necessary, just evil.
Judging by the behaviour of people over the bright, balmy autumn weekend just gone, the British are becoming more Swedish. We are capable of assessing our own risks while taking care not to endanger others. Parents allowed their teenagers to go on forbidden sleepovers because they judged that the mental harm to their child of not socialising was greater than any health risk they might run or cause to others. Quite right, too.
Besides, how can we possibly respect restrictions which allow fishing (a recreation) but ban angling (a sport)? How can you go for a long walk with a friend, but not take golf clubs and a ball on that walk? Why are estate agents and dog groomers open, but you get fined two hundred quid if you enter a church? As for not being allowed to visit elderly parents, hats off to the resourceful fellow who said his mother and father were putting their house on the market so he could go and view it.
Peak absurdity was reached when a member of Sage conceded a few days ago that the British would be allowed to celebrate Christmas – although not until next summer. When Yuletide is in June, you know it’s time to summon the men in white coats – to take the men in white coats away. One of those men, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, hailed the vaccine as “a very important scientific breakthrough”, although he said we mustn’t get too excited. It was as if a player had taken one penalty and scored, he said; proof, merely, that the goalkeeper could be beaten. Let me extend that analogy: Sage scientists and the ministers who are in thrall to them are now in the business of scoring own goals. Every single day, they insist the restrictions remain in place, they are defeating their own country. Soon, we will be bottom of the league.
Thanks to the vaccine, we can see an end to this dark time. There is a place, not too far now, where we will hug our parents and friends without fear and life, sweet life – the one we need not they one they allow us – will be back.
Something flutters inside, wings extend, ready for take-off; hope is come again. My God, how we need it.