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Any the wiser? Not really !!

Updated: May 20, 2020

Having spent most of last week wondering what Doctor Johnson’s lockdown remedy would look like, we can devote the next to trying to figure out what if anything it means, for each of us, specifically. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, Bojo’s already admitted the only real solution is the vaccine which looks set to take a fair bit longer. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’ Stirring words in the inaugural address by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as he squared up to the economic crisis of the 1930’s. Feels like a detail next to what we’re up against now, what with the Bank of England talking darkly of the biggest downturn for three centuries, coupled with the deadly pandemic which, let’s face it, no one really knows how to fix. Particularly bad news for us in dear old Blighty, celebrating VE day on one hand, and lamenting on the other the grim news that our Covid-19 death rate is the highest in Europe. The latest nasty twist being the upsurge in care home fatalities. Seems fear isn’t quite the only thing we’ve got to contend with these days. And, considering we came rather late into the game, meaning we could have learned from others, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer surely had a point last week when he faced Johnson for the first time at Prime Minister’s Questions. In his silky barrister’s tones he put it politely but firmly. ‘How on earth did it come to this?’ Neat way of disguising a statement as a question, to which no amount of bluster could possibly provide an answer. Little wonder the latest polling evidence makes troubling reading for the chancellor, who wants to wean at least some of us off our enforced coma/holiday/paid leave of absence – and back to work. The latest YouGov poll for The Times, showing well over half of us are still scared about getting the dreaded disease, suggests he’s got a tricky task on his hands. That said, there are cohorts of scientists the world over inching towards a way out of the tunnel. Transfusions to treat Covid-19 using blood plasma from those who’ve recovered from it have already taken place. Three NHS trusts are giving it a go, with more to follow if all goes well. There’s also a new drug being tried out at University Hospital Southampton. Interferon beta, part of the body’s first line of defence, alerts it to any approaching virus. We should know if it works on corona by the end of next month. Even sooner than that, a new antibody test that’s said to be almost a hundred per cent accurate may be onstream here in UK in a couple of weeks. The Swiss company Roche says a big plus is it should help identify people who’ve been infected but aren’t showing any symptoms. In addition, boffins at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, teamed up with a medical centre and a drug company, have identified a potential method of neutralising COVID-19. They discovered that an antibody which prevents the SARS virus from infecting human cells could do the same thing with coronavirus. Early stages, but a potential step toward a cure as well as a treatment. Little wonder the research is being described as ‘groundbreaking’. It’s all got to a point that Britain and the US are concerned that rival states like China and Russia are mounting cyberattacks on research outfits, in the hope of nicking their secrets. Though it could be argued that what really matters is not who got there first, but who gets there at all. For the moment, however, the British government’s setting much store by the mobile phone tracking system it’s experimenting with on the Isle of Wight. The idea is an app using Bluetooth to detect nearby phones will show who the owner has been near. Meaning they’ll get a warning if one of their contacts contracts COVID-19, and be able to pass on the message. In theory, if enough people download it the lockdown really can be loosened. Apart from the fact that a fair few older folk don’t have smartphones, there are also very real privacy concerns about so much personal info having to be passed on. Against that, if more of us can get out and about a bit more perhaps it’s a price worth paying? Possibly, to really get the idea to catch on, the government could give it a nice catchy name. Traxit, maybe, for old times’ sake. Maybe not. Strange to think, when nearly all conversations almost always come back to the current crisis pretty quickly, that life in other forms hasn’t stopped. Scientists at Exeter University, for example, have been busy trying to figure out why otters play with pebbles and small rocks – juggling them, or rolling them around with their paws. Sweet, really, though they reckon the real reason they do it is because they’re hungry. Certainly, hunger of one sort or other can get to us all. Take Professor Neil Ferguson, whose research prompted the lockdown in the first place, but who couldn’t resist juggling his own social needs with the advice he was giving the rest of us. Meeting his non live-in girlfriend cost him his job as a top government adviser, even though he’d already had Covid-19 and so was almost certainly immune. That aspect of the saga underlines the clash between blunt instrument regulations and the simple application of common sense. It also points to the intensely human aspect of what can just read like a litany of mostly depressing statistics. Vile things have emerged. Like the spike in hate crimes directed at Chinese people who live here in Britain. As if they’ve got anything to do with anything. But there’ve been good things too. Romantic, even. A couple in the Italian city of Verona kissed for the first time last week and made plans to live together. Neither even knew of the other’s existence till they made eye contact, from their separate balconies, during the lockdown. Then there’s the heartwarming tale of donations pouring in from Ireland to help Native Americans badly hit by the pandemic. At the height of the Great Famine, members of the Choctaw tribe donated dollars to folk from the Emerald Isle who’d fled to The States to escape starvation. Having just been forced off their own ancestral homeland by the damn Yanks, they could feel the new immigrants’ pain. One good deed deserves another? A message from one Irish donor reads: ‘In your moment of hardship… one hundred and seventy years later, the favour is returned.’ And finally something to put us all in our place. Times columnist Matthew Parris tells of a little girl, not yet three, who knows a thing or two. In an attempt to talk in words the child could understand, her father explained she couldn’t play with her friends because there were some bad germs around. Her response? ‘Don’t be silly, Daddy, it isn’t called germs, it’s called coronavirus. Don’t you know?’ Well that’s that sorted then.

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.


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