Where’s Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Alok Sharma and Oliver Dowden when you need them? They may all have their limitations as cabinet ministers but they did used to liven up the Downing Street press conferences with their incompetence. I especially miss Sharma who was a joy to sketch as he never knowingly answered a direct question with a direct answer and I could never quite work out whether that was because he hadn’t really understood the question or genuinely had no idea of the answer he was expected to give. Perhaps both. Now the twice weekly briefings are shared between Boris Johnson, who tends to hog the ones where there might be some good news on offer, and Matt Hancock – the prime minister’s preferred patsy – who gets to do all the ones where there is bad news or no news. They are much more boring as a result as Boris just waffles on in a sub-Churchillian haze while Hancock sounds more and more like the floor manager in a department store. In some weeks I find myself sketching Hancock at least twice and I long for the time when I can ignore him for a month as I’m worried I’m running out of anything new to say about him. But I find myself obliged to carry on, like someone engaged in a dysfunctional relationship, just to see how the whole thing pans out. Still, we have had the scotch egg drama to keep us entertained as the government once again tried to make up policy as it went along. First we had the environment secretary, George Eustice, saying a scotch egg constituted a substantial meal, only for him to be contradicted by Gove, who maintained that two scotch eggs were a decent starter. Personally, I’ve never much liked them anyway but if I was invited out for a meal only to be served a single scotch egg, I’d feel mighty pissed off.
Spoiler alert. If you haven’t yet seen the last episode of Sky Atlantic’s thriller The Undoing or are saving the whole series up to watch at a later date, then please skip straight to Wednesday’s entry. Because after five gripping, well-acted and beautifully shot episodes, all of which ended in a cliffhanger, it turned out that the killer was the person who had always been the prime suspect right from the start. All of which made the last episode something of a disappointment and an anticlimax. Somehow I couldn’t help feeling cheated. And the final 15-minute car chase that culminated with Hugh Grant standing on the edge of a bridge was just pure tat. Such a classy show deserved a classier ending. If it had turned out that Donald Sutherland or Nicole Kidman’s creepy friend had done it, I’d have come away more than satisfied. The Undoing brought back memories of going to see the film Jagged Edge with my wife back in the 1980s. Back then, I was still a drug addict and so passed out 15 minutes after the start, though not before I had nudged Jill in the ribs to inform her that Jeff Bridges was definitely the killer because he was the only one with the motive to do it. I woke up 10 minutes from the end, to find Bridges was indeed the perp and loudly informed my wife that I had been right to sleep through it all along. My wife had to point out that I had missed the intervening 90 minutes in which most of the action had been directing the audience away from Bridges’ guilt and that the ending was meant to have come as a surprise. I’ve never bothered to rewatch Jagged Edge to see how well it succeeded, but with the Undoing the only surprise was that there was no surprise.
As a general rule, I try to steer clear of hospitals. Not just for the obvious reasons that I associate them with death – my father died in hospital – and trauma – both my children went into intensive care when they were born and I am almost into double figures with the number of operations I have had on my knees – but because of the hours I have spent there waiting for appointments, either in outpatients or A&E. But this week I have been forced to rethink the latter. Having last week received a text inviting me for an appointment that wasn’t an appointment for April next year at the urology department of St George’s in south London to investigate my kidney stones, I got a phone call saying there had been a cancellation and could I come in for an ultrasound scan the following day. Naturally, I dropped everything and said yes but arrived at the hospital with a rucksack full of kit to follow events in parliament as I was certain I would be hanging around for several hours. Knowing that it can take some time to find a space in the hospital car park – the trick is to park up near the pay station, wait for someone to come along and then get them to guide you to the space they will soon be vacating – I neurotically arrived at the x-ray department 35 minutes before my appointment was due. Which was just as well, because 25 minutes later my name was called – imagine that: an appointment where you’re seen early – and I was whisked off to the ultrasound room. There I was examined by a charming radiologist who talked me though the procedure, located the same obstinate stone that had brought me to A&E four years ago, reassured me there was no sign of any cancer – as a paid-up hypochondriac, I always fear the worse – and then sent me on my way 20 minutes later. I was in and out of the hospital car park in under an hour. I realise my good fortune is almost entirely down to fewer patients attending hospital during the pandemic and departments limiting appointments to prevent overcrowding, but it was nice to experience my first upside to coronavirus.
Clearly sensing that I tend to be a gloomy bloke who generally expects the worst to happen and trying to cheer me up, the Appreciate Group (me neither) has sent through a list of the 10 most joyful events of 2020, according to a survey it has commissioned. Top of the list, and hard to argue with, is Capt Sir Tom Moore’s £32m charity walk around his garden for the NHS. In second place, confirming that the UK isn’t a total basket case, was Donald Trump losing the US election. Only making it into third place was the news of a coronavirus vaccine. Personally, that would have been top of my list but it turns out that only the over-55s and those aged between 18 and 24 were that interested. Presumably the 25- to 54-year-olds consider themselves immortal. Fourth was Marcus Rashford forcing the government into a U-turn over free school meals during holidays, followed closely by pubs, restaurants and hairdressers reopening after lockdown. In sixth place, propped up by the over 55s – this time I can only apologise for my age demographic – was the UK reaching agreement to leave the EU. I have a feeling this one might slide off the bottom of the scale when we eventually find out on what terms we are leaving. Then came the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and Kamala Harris winning the vice-presidency. The launch of the “eat out to help out” scheme – an odd choice – came ninth while Liverpool winning the Premier League bizarrely sneaked into 10th place. There must have been a lot of Liverpool supporters in the poll: while I didn’t mind them winning the title, I could hardly claim their achievement would have made my top 10 highlights. Now if Spurs had won the league for the first time since 1961 then it would have been a very different story. Maybe next year.
It was about 7.30 on Wednesday morning that I received an alert on my phone that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency had approved the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. And I confess the news made me feel quite emotional. The hope that had come with the news of the development of three vaccines was now accompanied by something more profound. For the first time, a way out of the pandemic felt a tangible reality rather than just a possibility. That there would be an end to the seemingly endless series of tiered restrictions – guided less by the science and more by what Tory MPs might vote for – followed by a national lockdown: the pessimist in me still thinks the five-day Christmas amnesty is just asking for trouble in January and February. That there would be a time – possibly as early as late spring – when we will get to see our daughter again, and that I can get back to seeing my friends and workmates. I know I’ve been lucky to have my wife with me throughout, but I’ve still found myself spending far too much time in my own company during the day and it’s played havoc with my mental health. But it was depressing to see just how quickly some ministers were to politicise the vaccine. Within hours of the announcement, Matt Hancock and Jacob Rees-Mogg had lied that the speed of approval was down to the UK leaving the EU. The following day, the terminally useless Gavin Williamson had declared that our regulators were better than everyone else’s; better than the Americans, Belgians and the French. In fact better than everyone’s because the UK was the best in the world at everything. Someone might like to let Gav know that Pfizer is a US company and that the vaccine is being manufactured in Belgium. Surprisingly though, just this once Boris has been restraining his usual Brexit jingoism and acting like a prime minister. Surely the real lesson of the pandemic is that it has been a global crisis and that the way out of it will turn out to be the efforts of scientists working collaboratively worldwide. Or is that too much to ask?
Digested week, digested: -70C
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