Flying anywhere right now is difficult, but for those of us who are jabbed, it is at least possible. So just after Christmas I set off for America to see my family in Connecticut, armed with the NHS app technology which we were once assured would never be used as a vaccine passport. It’s now precisely that.
I tapped my phone to summon my travel credentials en route to Heathrow, but to my astonishment my vaccination status wasn’t there: ‘No Covid-19 records found.
Barely six weeks after it was first discovered in Britain, the Omicron variant has changed everything. Cases have soared far beyond records made in the first wave. Hospital admissions are surging and pupils are once again wearing masks in school. Modellers have produced terrifying figures — up to 25,000 hospitalisations a day, more than five times the last peak. It looks like a Covid groundhog day, a doom loop we seem unable to escape.
If the Omicron death count falls short of the 6,000 a day envisaged by the gloomier Sage scenarios, it could be for many reasons. It might be because the variant is milder or because the vaccines offer strong protection — but there’s something else that seldom gets much notice. Britain has placed the world’s biggest per person order for new antiviral drugs that can be given to help those who have Covid and vastly reduce the scope for hospitalisation and death.
My wife and I were lucky to escape for a long-delayed birdwatching holiday in Kenya over Christmas. To have been warm, sunlit and free while so many in Britain were not won’t endear me to most readers, I realise. Nairobi was rife with Covid and Christmas cancellations devastated the tourism industry. So we had the extraordinary Elephant Watch Camp run by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in the Samburu National Reserve almost to ourselves.
Two years ago the Church of England decided to delay any public discussion of its deepest division, over homosexuality, until 2022. So this might be the year in which an already troubled institution has a dramatic public meltdown. Or it might be the year in which the Church of England sorts itself out a bit. Yes, really. Stranger miracles have happened.
There are grounds for hope, and not just on the gay issue. The Church has a core strength that it could draw on, and a core identity that could stand it in good stead, though one it is weirdly shy to assert.
Emmanuel Macron, with eagle eyes, is staring at Europe like stout Cortez. Elected president of France almost five years ago aged just 39, he dreams beyond the renewal of his lease on the Élysée Palace in the April election. Now Angela Merkel has left the world stage, Macron’s ambition is to replace her as Europe’s de facto leader and to father a European federation, a United States of Europe, with France and himself at its centre.
I’ve never been keen on the idea of popularity. Courting disapproval has been a large part of my career and I find it bracing, like an early dip in a cold sea. I remember back in 2003 feeling put out because the Most Hated People In Britain list featured me at a mere 85, sandwiched between Damien Hirst and Richard Branson.
So imagine my excitement this week on reading that the alleged comedian Stewart Lee had dispatched me into his New Year Pedal Bin, a list of his least-favourite people, alongside such chucklesome types as Ricky Gervais, John Cleese, Graham Linehan, Maureen Lipman and Dave Chappelle.
I left China a decade ago when life there as a Uighur simply became too difficult. People know about the ongoing genocide of the Uighurs, but it didn’t come out of nowhere: it followed years of smaller scale persecution, which I experienced daily.
I first grew aware of how bad things were in 2009, when I got a job in an inland city that required me to travel — a role that became impossible because hotels would refuse to let me stay.
After taking James Bond hostage, Auric Goldfinger does what all Bond villains do when in a position of power — he spills the beans. ‘Mr Bond, all my life I have been in love,’ he tells him. ‘I have been in love with gold. I love its colour, its brilliance, its divine heaviness… I ask you, is there any other substance that so rewards its owner?’
You don’t have to be a criminal mastermind to understand what Goldfinger means.