A meeting with my past in an NHS hospital

Pushing through a crowded hospital corridor behind my father, I heard a voice calling me. Then a nurse grabbed me and threw her arms around me. She had heard my father’s name and recognised me, her old school friend from St Joseph’s. As we walked and talked, she told me, ‘We all read your articles’ and I thought: ‘Oh dear I’m about to be exposed as an anti-vaxxer in the middle of A&E while my father’s having a heart attack.’ But she was smiling, pleased to see me. In fact, she was beaming as she said, ‘I remember Alma!’ referring to my maternal grandmother. People would come in for a

Paris, city of blight

You know that feeling when you haven’t seen someone for several years and when you do, you really notice the changes? Generally it is a melancholy moment: you spot the extra wrinkles, the added pounds. Occasionally it can be positive: gym-toned physique, amusing new green-and-orange hair. Lots of us had these moments as we emerged, blinking and bewildered, from the bunker of Covid. I’ve just had this same experience, but with a city. Paris. The French capital is a place that I know well. I must have visited a dozen times over the decades. I’ve seen the Louvre Pyramid go up, I’ve seen Notre-Dame go down in flames (on TV,

Why were Germany’s Covid files redacted?

There are two kinds of long Covid. One is a medical syndrome, the other manifests as a healthy obsession – an urge to shed light on what happened during the pandemic crisis. Too many questions remain unanswered: why did Sweden come out of the pandemic better than other countries without having endured a lockdown? Why were masks imposed when scientific studies repeatedly demonstrated that they were unnecessary? Why was discrimination introduced between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated when it was clear that vaccines were incapable of blocking the transmission of the infection? And why, since the lockdowns, has there been such a high excess-death rate in Europe? Why were masks

Are we all becoming hermits now?

Long before Covid, wi-fi and Deliveroo, Badger in The Wind in the Willows showed us how to live beyond the manifold fatuities of this gimcrack world. Cosily tucked into his burrow with a roaring fire and well-stocked cellar, he was unbothered by importunate weasels and other denizens of the Wild Wood. He padded his underground realm for six months a year in dressing gown and down-at-heel slippers not just because he was a hibernating animal but out of existential temperament. ‘Badger hates Society,’ explained Rat. But, really, don’t we all? Not for him the ‘Poop! Poop!’ of Mr Toad, always going places and doing stuff. More Badger’s style was the

Anti-vaxxers aren’t to blame for rising measles cases

The UK Health Security Agency is sufficiently concerned about the growing number of measles cases in the West Midlands that it declared a ‘national incident’ last week. According to official figures, there have been 216 confirmed and 103 probable measles cases in the region since last October. The cause? The uptake of the MMR vaccine is at its lowest level in more than a decade, according to Dame Jenny Harries, CEO of the UKHSA. For some, this is proof of the ‘harm’ that anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists can do if greater efforts aren’t made to silence them. A leading article in the Times blamed the outbreak on ‘disease disinformation’, accusing

Ménage à trois: Day, by Michael Cunningham, reviewed

Set over the course of the same April day, with morning, afternoon and night ascribed to consecutive years, Michael Cunningham’s Day is built around time’s march towards an inevitable ending. This feeling of being caught up in time and trapped by its onward force is shared by the novel’s small cast of characters. A married couple, Isabel and Dan Byrne, along with Isabel’s brother Robbie, are struggling with their floundering careers, ageing bodies and their place in the world. They are also balancing a painful platonic love triangle, with both Dan and Isabel more in love with Robbie than with each other. The claustrophobic domesticity of the novel is amplified

Do we really need this unsubtle and irrelevant play about Covid?

Pandemonium is a new satire about the Covid nightmare that uses the quaint style of the Elizabethan masque. Armando Iannucci’s play opens with Paul Chahidi as Shakespeare introducing a troupe of players who all speak in rhyming couplets. A golden wig descends like a signal from on high and Shakespeare transforms himself into the ‘World King’ or ‘Orbis Rex’. This jocular play reminds spectators with a low IQ that Orbis is an anagram of Boris. The former prime minister, also labelled the ‘globular squire’, is portrayed as a heartless, arrogant schemer driven by ambition and vanity. He retells the main events of the pandemic with the help of an infernal

Baroness Mone ‘can’t see what we’ve done wrong’ over PPE pandemic profits

Baroness Mone: ‘I can’t see what we’ve done wrong’ Laura Kuenssberg’s show this morning was dominated by her interview with Baroness Michelle Mone and her husband Doug Barrowman, who have admitted their direct involvement with PPE Medpro, a company which was awarded a huge PPE contract during the pandemic, despite years claiming the contrary. The couple said they made £60 million in profit from the deal, and Mone admitted to being a beneficiary of financial trusts where the money is held. There is an ongoing criminal investigation, but Mone suggested they had been made scapegoats while Barrowman even implied a government official had asked for a bribe in exchange for

Fast and furious: America Fantastica, by Tim O’Brien, reviewed

It’s been said again and again but rarely so plainly illustrated: American life is now too berserk for fiction to keep up. Tim O’Brien’s wild, rollercoaster satire America Fantastica is as wacky as its title suggests; but it can’t compete with the daily trainwreck that calls itself the land of the free and the home of the brave. O’Brien tracks with furious contempt the spread of a highly contagious illness: mythomania and delusional conspiracy theories infecting the body politic and poisoning a defenceless citizenry in the dark pre-Covid days of 2019. The name ‘Trump’ is never mentioned in the novel, but the ‘avalanche of oratorical whoppers’ issuing from the White

Our new house needed us – and we needed the house

The light does such magical things on this hillside that, as I walk the steep narrow lanes between fields, I can’t take my eyes off a distant, golden-topped mountain range. At night the sky is so clear I wander into the garden and stare at the northern star, bright and low. I saw in the local paper that we got the northern lights the other evening: streaks of blue and green over the harbour. Everything seems such a riot of colour and flavour here. I look around me and despite the views, I also see the funeral cars going up and down the lanes The food tastes precisely of itself,

Why was an erroneous graph used to justify the second lockdown?

Two stories are emerging from the Covid Inquiry: one that it wants to tell and one that it does not. The first is a tale of foul-mouthed incompetence, of which there’s no shortage of evidence dredged from the private messages of the main actors. The more important story can be found in the submitted statements – hundreds of pages of thoughts, documents and reflections. They raise an important question which Baroness Hallett’s inquiry shows little interest in answering: was lockdown based on a false premise, conjured up by poorly drafted models? Only later did No. 10’s head of data find out that this false graph had been shown on national

The Covid farce

38 min listen

This week: The Covid Inquiry has reached its more dramatic stage this week with the likes of Domic Cummings, Lee Cain and Martin Reynolds giving evidence. But in his cover piece for the magazine Carl Heneghan, professor of evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, says that the Hallett Inquiry is asking all the wrong questions, and is preoccupied with who said what on WhatsApp. He joins the podcast alongside Tom Whipple, science editor at the Times to go through this week’s revelations. (01:43).  Also this week: will Israel succeed in its stated aims? In the magazine this week Hugh Lovatt, senior policy fellow

So which Naomi do you think I am? The saga of Klein vs Wolf

Maureen O’Hara, the flame-haired ‘Queen of Technicolor’ celebrated for her on-screen chemistry with John Wayne, hated to be confused with Maureen O’Sullivan, who was Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. But they were both Irish-born Hollywood actresses called Maureen, so it kept happening. I once heard John Sessions describe the time he met the octogenarian O’Hara. He prepared for the encounter by repeating to himself: ‘Don’t call her Maureen O’Sullivan.’ They got on famously until, inevitably, the wrong name slipped out. She took it ‘as badly as you can possibly imagine’. The public soon lost track of which Naomi was droning on about the genocidal logic of ‘late capitalism’ Likewise, Naomi

If I told my new friend the truth, our friendship would be over

‘Achoo!’ was the first thing the girl sitting next to me on the plane said as I took my seat beside her. She groaned and blew her nose, coughed, spluttered, and apologised. ‘It’s hay fever, honestly,’ she said. She was in the window seat, I was in the middle. The older lady beside me in the aisle seat grimaced. ‘Please, don’t worry,’ I said to the sneezing girl. ‘I’m so over it. I couldn’t care less if it’s hay fever or if it’s Covid.’ She smiled, fumbled, and offered me a Strepsil, that well-known cure for the effects of pollen. I liked her immediately – something about her fidgety energy,

The madness of the lockdown trials

I think we can now admit that Covid sent us all a little loopy. Matt Hancock certainly seems it, handing over more than 100,000 highly sensitive texts to a hostile journalist. Today’s revelations show Hancock telling colleagues ‘we are going to have to get heavy with the police’. While everyone gets excited about the lockdown files, there are still plenty of lockdown trials going before the courts. Which, even if a gratuitous breach, seems a little pointless now. Rules are being enforced that are no longer in place. Rules that, the Daily Telegraph reports, weren’t based purely on ‘the science’. Mr Hylton’s is a sad tale of what happens when

Pouria Hadjibagheri and the UK’s abandoned open data revolution

With a new year comes the New Year’s Honours and I’m struck to see an MBE given to Pouria Hadjibagheri. He’s the technical lead of a civil service team whose drive and creativity led to the Coronavirus data hub. It was a breakthrough in the democratisation of public data. He and his team saw to it that information and metrics were not the secret preserve of a Whitehall cabal, cherry-picked to make a certain point, but available to everyone. This transformed the debate about the virus and the need for lockdown, allowing for new perspectives and new projects. The Spectator’s data hub was one of them. If you were pleased we avoided

Britain needs more honesty about unemployment

Is low unemployment causing us more problems than we realise? The suggestion might seem absurd, offensive even. It’s reminiscent of the days of Mrs Thatcher’s supposedly ‘cruel’ monetarism, when we had three million unemployed. Some on the fringes liked to argue that unemployment was good for the economy because it made people work harder, being fearful for their jobs. Mass redundancies would not, of course, help the economy now or at any other time. If a million people were to lose their jobs, as happened in the early 1980s, that would be a million households suffering a collapse in the spending power. As well as a human tragedy, it would

The 100-year-old opiate had lost none of its potency

Our neighbour Michael is a keen and knowledgable attender of vides-greniers, the equivalent of our car-boot sales. His focus is on old bottles, full or empty, and old china, but he’ll pick up anything that piques his fancy. Some months ago, for example, he bought for €1 a glass tube of opium tablets issued to the French infantry during the Great War. Last week he reissued me with three of these little brown pills knowing that I had an abiding interest in the first world war and was using a modern version – white crystals of morphine sulphate in a red gelatine pill – to mask the pain I was

Vaccines disguised the errors of our lockdown policy

Liz Truss’s statement that she would never authorise another lockdown and The Spectator’s interview with Rishi Sunak have triggered a new debate about whether the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 were justified. The most widely discussed positions are that lockdown occurred too late or that there should never have been any lockdowns at all, alongside the view that what happened was about right. But there is another position here – in many ways perhaps the most obvious position – that rarely gets an airing. When lockdown was first introduced, Boris Johnson said the point was to ‘squash the sombrero’ of cases, so that the peak number of hospitalisations each week

What Rishi Sunak gets wrong about lockdown

Rishi Sunak presents an alarming picture of what happened during lockdown in last week’s Spectator interview – one echoed by lockdown sceptics who claim that Covid policy was a disaster, stoked by fear and based on questionable scientific advice. Worst of all, they cry, the trade-offs were not even discussed. But none of this is true – it is Covid revisionism. I know because I sat around the cabinet table as politicians, scientists, economists and epidemiologists agonised over the extent to which lockdown would devastate lives and livelihoods. It was not an easy decision for anyone. We locked down because we knew the cost of ‘letting Covid rip’ was far