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

In the grip of apocalypse angst

You have to love a book about the end of the world in which the first two references are to Saul Bellow’s Herzog and the HBO series The White Lotus, a high/low combo that preps us for authorial omniscience. In the next few paragraphs we get Marc Maron, Sally Rooney and Frank Kermode. Buckle up, kids, a cultural whirlwind is coming! The day of judgment is at hand, and the all-knowing Dorian Lynskey, who seems to have doomscrolled through every card catalogue on the planet, is just the person to provide live commentary. A capacious cultural history of ‘apocalyptic angst’, his Everything Must Go will make you happy to be

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

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

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

A feminist finds fulfilment in derided ‘women’s work’

Marina Benjamin writes with a frankness, depth and wisdom that recalls the self-exploratory but world-revealing essays of Michel de Montaigne. In A Little Give, she turns her exacting philosopher’s mind, and opens her capacious heart to, her own life. Her essays, Tardis-like in their complexity, depth and range, scrutinise what has made and unmade her feminism, and then enabled her to make anew the feminism that has given her life both its personal and political trajectory: While I’ve never stopped identifying as a feminist, I am less and less certain what it means to live as one. I don’t mean how to organise and mobilise collectively. I mean simply how

Isolating with the ex: Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout, reviewed

Elizabeth Strout’s fourth book about Lucy Barton comes on the heels of Oh William!, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. That book tracked Lucy’s growing friendship with her first husband, William, after the death of her second. In Lucy by the Sea, she accompanies William to Maine to ride out the pandemic. Closing the door of her New York apartment, she does not know that she will never see it again; that she will lose a friend and a family member to Covid; and that her relationship with William and her two grown daughters will change. Lucy is at sea at first: she hates the cold, the locals’ distrust of

Farewell, St Anthony Fauci

So farewell, Anthony Fauci, the unfortunate face of America’s pandemic response. Well, not so unfortunate – the doctor is stepping down as head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases this December, riding off into the sunset with a reported $350,000 per year golden parachute, the largest pension in US federal history. Fauci has developed something of a reputation for baffling the public – whether it be for contradictory advice on the efficacy of masks or herd immunity or vaccines. Even his resignation announcement was confusing:  I will be leaving these positions in December of this year to pursue the next chapter of my career… While I am

Has the lab leak theory really been disproved?

The BBC carried a story this week with the headline ‘Covid origin studies say evidence points to Wuhan market’. Bizarrely the paper in Science they are referring to, by Michael Worobey and colleagues, says no such thing. It says: ‘the observation that the preponderance of early cases were linked to the Huanan market does not establish that the pandemic originated there’. All three of the scientists quoted in the BBC story have been highly dismissive about even discussing the possibility that the pandemic began as an accident in a Wuhan laboratory. Their vested interest is clear: they worry that the reputation of their field of virology would be threatened by

The Everybody Inn: what happened when a hotel opened its doors to the homeless?

What do you do when you pass someone sleeping or begging in the street? I’ll tell you what I do: pretty much the bare minimum to appease my conscience. Pound coins distributed, some names asked for and learned, sandwiches and snacks for those outside supermarkets (Müller Corners and bottles of chocolate milk particular favourites). After reading this book I realise there is rather a lot more I could be doing. And indeed a lot more others, particularly the government, could be considering. Here is how Christina Lamb describes what Mike Matthews, owner of the historic Prince Rupert Hotel in Shrewsbury, was doing a few years before the pandemic struck: He

Sheila Hancock takes pride in her irascibility

This book begins with Sheila Hancock wondering why she is being offered a damehood. I must say I slightly wondered too, but it seems that most actresses become dames if they live long enough: vide Joan Collins, Penelope Keith, Joanna Lumley etc. And Hancock, as well as acting and making brilliant appearances on Radio 4’s Just a Minute, also does lots of charity work. She considers refusing the honour because ‘it’s hardly in keeping with my Quaker belief in equality’, but decides ‘no, it would be dreadfully rude and ungracious’. Anyway, she admires the Queen, and also Prince Charles, who left flowers and a handwritten note on her doorstep when

Travels in time and space: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel, reviewed

It’s a bold writer who confronts a major historical moment such as a pandemic before it’s over, but Emily St. John Mandel has a claim to fictionalised outbreaks. Her 2014 novel Station Eleven presciently envisioned a devastating flu. That book was televised by HBO and became a major hit, and this latest touches on the same ground. As J.G. Ballard proved, revisiting a subject – as a painter might – can be a fertile approach in speculative fiction. Sea of Tranquility initially adopts a time-leaping structure reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which itself sprang from Italo Calvino’s masterpiece If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller). In 1912, we meet

Murder, suicide and apocalypse: Here Goes Nothing, by Steve Toltz, reviewed

Angus Mooney is dead. Freshly murdered, he’s appalled to find himself in an Afterworld, having always rejected the possibility of life after death. Moreover, he can observe his murderer getting on increasingly well with his innocent widow. Mooney’s Afterworld is a deeply unsatisfactory mixture of computerised bureaucracy and urban chaos. In a landscape undreamed of by Dante, his guide is no cicerone but a woman with a welcoming bed and good contacts in Management, who knows her way around the local drinking spots. The Australian novelist Steve Toltz specialises in the blackest of comedy. His first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2008. Here

Should we worry about the BA.2 Omicron variant?

When the Omicron variant (now categorised as BA.1) swept across the world at the end of last year it was seen by optimists as the final chapter in the Covid story – it was so contagious it would infect essentially anyone, but would be far less likely to cause serious illness. Now a new wave of Omicron – the BA.2 variant – is becoming dominant in many parts of the world. In the UK, cases are again on the rise. Genomic surveys show that BA.2 made up 76 per cent of new cases in England as of 5 March. The below is from the Sanger Institute: So what’s going on? Firstly, both

Is China’s zero Covid game up?

Omicron has broken through China’s Covid wall. On Tuesday, the country saw a record-high of more than 5,000 cases, the highest number since the original Wuhan outbreak. To Brits (and most people around the world), that might sound like a laughably small number – but, as you might expect, China’s zero Covid machine has jumped into action, leading to a disproportionate, severe response. In the most afflicted areas like Shenzhen and Changchun, public transport has been suspended, non-essential businesses closed, residential compounds locked down. People can leave their homes to take part in compulsory city-wide mass testing (social media is flooded with videos of lengthy unsocially-distanced queues at test sites)

Covid is rising again. Should we worry?

For some time now, Covid has been rising in Scotland – there are now more Scots in hospital with Covid than at any time throughout the winter. A freak, or a sign of what’s to come nationally? The ONS survey answers that question today, confirming that Covid cases are rising nationally: some 4 per cent of England’s population, it says, would test positive. In Northern Ireland it’s closer to 8 per cent and in Scotland 5.7 per cent. Have waning vaccines created space for another wave – and do we need to worry? Just as Gauteng and South Africa then Lambeth and London were the early warning signs for Omicron’s rise

Sage admits its models were ‘at variance to reality’. But why?

The Sage committee was set up as a pool of experts on tap to advise government. During the pandemic, it mutated into something different: a group whose advice ended up advocating long lockdowns. Its regular meetings have now been discontinued, with questions being asked in No. 10 about whether it’s time to disband Sage and set up a new structure – in the same way that Public Health England was reformed and became the UK Health Security Agency. There will be plenty of lessons to learn. But we might not have much time to learn them: a new variant or (given the growth of genomic sequencing) a new pathogen could come along at any

Ending restrictions won’t save Boris

Boris Johnson certainly managed to rally the troops on their first day back from recess this afternoon as he told the Commons that all remaining domestic Covid restrictions were coming to an end.  The most explosive moments of the past few months haven’t been about the continuation of Covid restrictions From this Thursday, the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test will come to an end. Until 1 April, people who test positive will be advised to stay at home, but after that ‘we will encourage people with Covid-19 symptoms to exercise personal responsibility, just as we encourage people who may have flu to be considerate to others’. On

Two years on, what’s the evidence for lockdown?

Did lockdowns save lives? We will never have a definitive answer to this vital question because it was impossible to conduct controlled experiments — we don’t have two identical countries, one where lockdown was imposed and one where it wasn’t. Nor is it easy to compare similar countries, for the simple reason that every country in the world — bar Comoros in the Indian Ocean — reacted to Covid by introducing at least one non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPI) by the end of March 2020. There was no clear link between lockdown stringency and fewer deaths in the spring of 2020, A team from Johns Hopkins University has, however, assessed the many

Omicron is on its way out

Omicron peaked in England in early January, according to figures just released by the ONS. The estimates from the weekly infection survey show that cases in the UK peaked at around four million before falling. In the week ending 15 January, 1 in 20 had Covid in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and 1 in 25 in Wales. We shouldn’t be surprised by this We shouldn’t be surprised by this — this is how Omicron seems to go world over. As in Gauteng, as in South Africa, as in Lambeth, as in London and now in the UK: it falls almost as fast as it rises. Quite simply, the variant is so infectious that it quickly