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Speed Read – Here’s to you Captain Tom

Every week The Friday Speed Read plants small seeds in the hope of one day seeing a forest of great oaks spring up before it; so far, all that’s happened is that the seeds have got wet and not germinated properly.

So here’s to you Captain Tom. The quiet hero of the first wave of Coronavirus in the UK died this week aged 100-years-old. And with savage, unfair irony, it was Covid-19 that killed him. At a time when the government was flailing, panicked, misleading and at times, plain wrong in its response to the pandemic, Captain Tom stood up, leant against his walking frame and began to walk. He walked up and down the garden of his nursing home to raise money for NHS charities on the front line against this beastly disease. His aim to was to raise £1000 before his hundredth birthday; he actually raised over £30 million.

We always need heroes. And if we don’t have them, or if those that we do have let us down, then we invent them. But the national affection for Captain Tom was not an invention; it was a necessity. In those grim days as the pandemic accelerated and piece-by-piece the elements of our previous life fell away, Captain Tom walking up and down his garden became something to believe in; a reminder that even in the most brutal of times, humanity, or at least the best of it, has an innate ability to excel, to keep calm, if you will, and carry on. Yes, he was just an old man walking up and down a garden but for a nation on his knees, Captain Tom was the hero we needed; a reflection of the best of what can be. Our better selves incarnate.

His passing provoked sadness everywhere you looked. “We’ve lost a national treasure” said Metro; “Captain Marvel” said the Sun; “the best of us” said “i” – nailing its summary of the man in four words rather than the two paragraphs that it took me above.

In the decades to come, when the history books are written (and are not books); when the documentaries are beamed directly to the chips implanted into our brains (and Elon Musk is working on this if reports this week are to be believed) then the story of Coronavirus in the UK in 2020 will be accompanied always by pictures of an old man in a military uniform resolutely putting one dignified foot in front of another. Captain Tom, you won’t be forgotten.

Elsewhere this week, in the style of the Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 1980s, you could either follow a path that would lead to more worry, uncertainty and upset, or for the first time for a while, you could hop from story to story feeling lighter and more hopeful with each leap. I suppose the news is always like this to an extent but rarely have the headlines on websites and front pages been quite so varied in tone over the course of a single week. Let’s perhaps acknowledge the more unpleasant side of the week before barrelling into the weekend with some much-needed (but cautious) optimism.

Viruses mutate. A two-word sentence that if you’re anything like me you’d probably have not given much thought to in what we’re now calling the “old days”. Did I know that viruses mutate? Probably. But if I did I’m certain the knowledge had very little impact on my life. But now things are different of course and the fact that viruses do indeed mutate has affected material change on all of us. Mutating viruses meant that most of my Christmas plans were cancelled; mutating viruses meant that January was spent in full lockdown, one reminiscent of the first one but without the sunshine or the novelty or even pretending to keep up with Joe Wicks.

This week, the fear that much-discussed South African variant of the Covid-19 virus was spreading in the UK and indeed had emerged in some people who’d not even travelled to South Africa, began to generate significant disquiet. As you know, the South African cousin of the UK Covid-19 virus is significantly more resistant to the currently available interventions, the vaccines do have some efficacy against it but it’s less, much less. And that’s of course a worry. Not wanting to be accused yet again of reacting too slowly to new developments in the crisis (although they probably have) the government despatched testing teams to the various communities in which the new variant had been detected in order to stop it spreading. Cue the headlines: “Test blitz” (Metro); “Race to trace” (Mail); “The hunt is on to stop the South African bug” (Mirror). Let’s hope these efforts are successful. Because the rest of the week was characterised by something that looked suspiciously like good news.

And before we skip around in the good news like a child in a ball-pit (but without the usual whiff of urine) I am going to take a moment to warn myself not to get too overexcited. We’ve been here before. I remember sitting at my desk in the office (remember those?) to write the Speed Read last September, a jasmine-scented breeze tickling my nostrils and a shard of sunlight laid on my desk as pointing towards better times ahead. And jasmine wasn’t the only thing in the air. There was hope. And yes, many experts were already predicting a second wave of Covid would be with us by winter but no one believed them, no one wanted to believe them. For a few sweet weeks, it felt like we were on the road to beating Coronavirus. Even the Prime Minister said so.

I don’t need to summarise what happened next.

And so it’s with the tentative steps of one hurt too many times before that I approach the twin pillars of good news this week has given us. If indeed news can be in pillars. Which it likely can’t. Anyway, firstly the ongoing success of the vaccination programme is truly, truly brilliant. More than 10 million people have had a first dose of vaccine, almost 1 in 5 adults. And the number keeps jumping by nearly half a million a day. Suddenly, the suggestion that schools could reopen on the 8th of March is looking less fantastical. People who know about these things have said that the impact of the vaccination programme can already be seen, with infections dropping by a third in the past week.

The second good news pillar is that, although not yet confirmed, it looks likely that the Oxford vaccine is 70% (ish) effective at stopping transmission of the virus which, if true, will only hasten its retreat. “The Oxford jab game changer” said the Mail’s front page on Wednesday.

The combination of these two factors has meant that today’s news is filled of talk of when lockdown restrictions will lift, when the hospitality industry can reopen, when life will get back to “normal”. By April? By May? By the summer? It’s enough to open a bottle of champagne.

But for now, the Champagne remains un-popped. We’ve been hurt before. No one wants to be hurt again.

Finally, the internet sensation of the week is without doubt the footage from a meeting of the Handforth Parish Council in December. I can’t do it justice so please just watch it if you’ve not seen its incredible scenes.

Jackie Weaver for Prime Minister.

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