Tim Coles’ Notebook

Posted 14th June 2021

Oh dear… I’ve hit more animals in my car this year than my combined total throughout decades of driving. You might think from my mea culpa that I’m guilty of having killed hundreds. You certainly wouldn’t conclude that the doe I hit on my way to Northampton was my first ever such incident. Similarly, if you’d heard BBC late news reporting a local school’s “doubling” of Covid cases, you would not have thought, as I later discovered, that there were just two cases, up from one the previous week, and that neither pupil was ill. Nor would you have realised from initial reports that a “cluster of infections in fully vaccinated healthcare workers in New Delhi”, which prompted calls from scientists to reintroduce lockdown here, involved no serious illness whatsoever. You might have retired to bed haunted by those bulletins, just as I’m still haunted by that discombobulated doe dashing out before abruptly stopping and, as I tried desperately to avoid it, turning its beautiful face beseechingly toward me. And isn’t it unfortunate that the natural human reaction from everyone to whom I’ve confided this traumatic highway tragedy has been to exclaim: “Oh dear!’’

A delayed April fool… Spare a thought for any passionate Labour campaigner in Northampton. There may even be more than one but, if so, they had little effect on the recent council elections – just when so much should have been in their favour. Not only have people been living under unprecedented draconian restrictions imposed by a Conservative government, led by a Prime Minister who pays scant regard for the truth and with questionable financial probity, but the Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council had collapsed into effective bankruptcy (twice) and been scrapped following financial mismanagement. Conservative MP Philip Hollobone called it the “worst run” authority in the country. An investigation had concluded that “living within budget constraints is not part of the culture in Northamptonshire”. Two new unitary authorities, West and North Northamptonshire Councils, had only been formed on the 1st April and it must seem like a delayed April Fool to many that, following the elections in which the Tories secured a strong majority of seats, both will be run by many of the old councillors and officers from the failed authority. A microcosm of Westminster politics perhaps, where out of control spending proves no barrier to power and the only effective opposition to Conservative government comes from within the party itself (I use the term “effective” loosely – and “Conservative” for that matter).

Still not listening… Even though the local elections weren’t as one-sided as headlines suggested (Tory losses across the southern commuter belt suggest that in courting ‘Red Wall’ voters they may be taking the ‘Blue Wall’ for granted), Sir Keir Starmer certainly has a problem. His wokeism, including his support for legislation to make it possible to legally change gender without a medical diagnosis, with all the risks that poses to women’s safety and privacy, and his benign-sounding but, in reality, pernicious promise to eradicate ‘structural racism’, is repellent to down-to-earth Northerners, and many elsewhere. Moreover, telling an anti-lockdown pub landlord “I don’t need to take any lectures from you”, while his minder manhandled the publican on his own premises, was probably not the best pre-election strategy for a leader accused of not listening.

A rapid development… There were precisely zero Covid deaths a few days ago in this country. As I write, the chance of even an unvaccinated person catching the virus is put at 1 in 46,855. The story behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is remarkable, the skill and dedication of those involved in its rapid development inspiring. The decision to supply it at no profit during the pandemic makes EU vilification more egregious and Joe Biden’s proposal to suspend intellectual property rights more perplexing, if not a dangerous disincentive to research and development. Boris Johnson’s preposterous claim that plummeting hospitalisations and deaths were down to lockdown undermines his one good move during the pandemic – picking up the phone to Kate Bingham. Naturally, there was a chorus of Labour naysayers. For them, the EU should have been in control (great idea!) – or, failing that, anyone providing they were not from the private sector (Another bête noir is Sir James Dyson, a Brexiteer who manufactured ventilators without charge, and who lefties haven’t forgiven for being successful, and for founding a private higher education institution, rare for running only worthwhile courses). But it’s generally accepted that Kate Bingham secured millions of vaccines through “sheer perseverance, using her contacts, and demanding meetings with CEOs until they gave in.” The venture capitalist nearly didn’t accept the unpaid role because she doubted her ability to do it. She said she was only persuaded by her daughter telling her off: “Don’t be under-confident. You’re just putting yourself down”. Clearly, even highly successful graduates from Oxford and Harvard doubt themselves. But they recognise the value of listening – not least to their own offspring.  

Stockholm syndrome.. It’s difficult not to admire the Prime Minister’s chutzpah. He comes to the lectern and, like a father preparing his children for leaving home, tells us that we must soon “cease to rely on government edicts and make our own decisions”, as if we’d begged to be ordered around in the first place (come to think of it, many did). His future approach, if he can be believed (a big if), sounds more like the Swedish approach throughout the pandemic, advisory but not paternalistic, while looking at the whole picture. Total deaths from all causes in Sweden increased by just 1.5% last year (10% here) and excess deaths among under-65s actually fell (they rose sharply here, suggesting collateral damage from lockdown). Meanwhile, Swedish pupils up to 16 years old missed not one day of school. So, let’s hope Mr Johnson doesn’t use mutant Covid variants as an excuse to reverse the “irreversible”. He’s announced that hugging is now allowed. You can now “exercise your judgement”, something he previously deemed you were incapable of. Think about this. With little debate in Parliament, he took the power to make human contact illegal. And each time he lifts a restriction, many people are grateful to him, rather than angry he imposed it in the first place. One thing in Britain that does relate to Sweden is Stockholm syndrome. 

Pillars of the press.. You’d be forgiven for having missed a recent poll which showed that three-quarters of Swedes think that, despite mistakes to which he has owned up, Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist, and his team have handled things well or very well. This doesn’t fit the media narrative here. One marvels at just how insightful and enquiring our journalists have been, their determination to hold ministers to account a wonder to behold. I eagerly awaited the first carefully crafted question at the Prime Minister’s press conference. Would it be about the toxic pollutants found in disposable masks, for instance? Er, no, not quite. “Who are you most looking forward to hugging?” the reporter probed. Not to be outdone, the next journalist delved: ‘’Who will you shake hands with first?’’ Naturally, an answer there came none, but I bet their mothers were proud to hear them on the telly. Oh, what it is to be such pillars of the press.

Project Fear… It’s hard to escape the suspicion that the BBC, in its lukewarm reaction to the vaccine roll-out, is anxious about a diminution of its ‘Project Fear’ partnership with the government in the wake of there being little to fear. They’ve now turned to India to terrify us, emphasising a death toll of some 275,000 but not the population figure of 1.4 billion, nor that 99% of their recorded cases have recovered. Like Britain, our Commonwealth ally and largest democracy in the world needs a health system that doesn’t lurch from crisis to crisis but, in the meantime, they need more vaccine. The Prime Minister claims that we don’t have surplus stock to send to India, yet secretly sends 700,000 doses to Australia and plans to vaccinate British children for whom Covid-19 poses minimal risk. Now’s the time to be generous with some of those vaccines Kate Bingham secured.

Tim Coles