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DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Tobias Ellwood is yet another hypocrite destroying trust in our rule-makers 

When is a Christmas party not a Christmas party? The man to ask is the Tory MP Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons defence committee.

As the Mail revealed yesterday, Mr Ellwood went to a gathering at London’s Cavalry and Guards Club on Tuesday, where 26 other people were in attendance. He insists it was a ‘business meeting’, with not a Christmas cracker in sight.

Yet the organisers, the Iraq Britain Business Council, billed it very explicitly as a ‘Christmas party’ – which would mean the Bournemouth MP was in flagrant breach of the Covid guidelines.

So which was it? I don’t know about you, but if I was invited to a Christmas party and arrived to find people discussing ‘international foreign policy and security matters’, as Mr Ellwood claims, I’d be on the first train home.

The irony is that only days earlier, Mr Ellwood was lecturing us about following the rules. The day before he went to the party – sorry, business meeting – he sent a tweet warning people not to ‘let down their guard’ over Christmas, which could be ‘very dangerous indeed’.

To his credit, Mr Ellwood has been swift to apologise. But the whole business has done his party no good at all.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons’ defence committee, speaks at an event organised by the Iraq Britain Business Council, which he described as a ‘business meeting’ and it billed as a ‘Christmas party’

He’s not the first MP, of course, to fall foul of the regulations. In April, Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, visited his parents in Shropshire, despite having explicitly told the public ‘to stay at home for all bar the most essential activities’.

In a far more egregious episode in October, the SNP’s Margaret Ferrier lost her party whip after falling ill with Covid symptoms, travelling to London to attend a Covid debate, testing positive for the virus and then taking the train back to Scotland anyway.

Even the high priest of sanctimony himself, Jeremy Corbyn, was photographed at a dinner party for nine people, in flagrant breach of the ‘rule of six’.

The usual defence is that it can be hard to follow the guidelines because they keep changing.

Even so, it’s remarkable how often the people at the top have been caught out.

In April, Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, broke lockdown restrictions twice to visit her second home. But at least she had the decency to resign straight away.

A month later, the government adviser Professor Neil Ferguson, whose projections had been crucial in putting us into lockdown, was caught repeatedly meeting his married lover. He, too, resigned. But, once again, what was he thinking?

In fairness, some senior media figures, too, have been less than perfect. Having spent months interrogating our politicians about the finer details of the lockdown rules, and haranguing them for the slightest slip, what were Sky’s Kay Burley and Beth Rigby doing cavorting at a birthday party earlier this month?

Ellwood was quick to apologise but said the the business meeting was 'fully Covid compliant'

Ellwood was quick to apologise but said the the business meeting was ‘fully Covid compliant’

But one example looms larger than any other – the saga of Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham after he and his wife tested positive for Covid. And then, the infamous drive to Barnard Castle, to ‘test his eyesight’.

It now turns out, by the way, that Mr Cummings had just pocketed a pay rise of almost 50 per cent, taking his salary to more than £140,000 – and this in a year when most public sector wages have been frozen.

Even his fellow special advisers were shocked at that. ‘It’s rank hypocrisy,’ one told The Times. ‘Dom used to be resolutely opposed to anyone getting paid more than £100,000.’ Of course, none of us is perfect. Can I honestly say, hand on heart, that I’ve stuck religiously to every guideline, with not a single breach, no matter now tiny? I’d better not answer that.

But our politicians are different, whether they like it or not. To quote the late Julius Caesar, ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’.

The event Ellwood attended was billed by organisers as a 'Christmas Party'

The event Ellwood attended was billed by organisers as a ‘Christmas Party’

Some argue that they are human, deserving of exactly the same latitude as their constituents. I might buy that if they weren’t on the public payroll, with handsome perks and pensions to go with their responsibilities. They set the tone for public life, they have a duty to do better.

As Mr Ellwood remarked, ‘perceptions count’. There’s no point haggling over details, as Mr Cummings did after his Barnard Castle expedition. If it looks bad, then it is bad. End of story.

All this revives the spectre of the defining scandal of recent times: the revelations of MPs’ expenses. Who can forget the duck house, the moat-cleaning or the £100 bill to change a light bulb?

All that was 11 years ago, but it left a lasting legacy. The image of a careless, greedy, out-of-touch elite has been one of the biggest drivers of the new politics of anti-government populism, fuelling insurgencies from Nigel Farage’s Ukip to Mr Corbyn’s hard-Left cult.

The danger, then, is not merely that these latest breaches undermine trust in the Covid guidelines, making it much harder to fight the pandemic at a desperately dangerous moment.

The greater problem is that, in the long run, they undermine the basis of democratic politics itself – the idea of a bond of solidarity between leaders and led, representatives and voters, the elite and the rest of us.

It’s worth remembering that one day, this will be over. But how will we emerge into the new post-Covid world? United, harmonious, determined to rebuild our shared society? Or squabbling, fractious and divided, with one rule for them, and another for us?

To put it another way, when this dreadful year is over, will we remember Mr Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle and Mr Ellwood’s ‘business meeting’ as mere footnotes to a bigger story?

Or will we see them as symptoms of a much broader disease, the widening gulf between the ordinary families who tried to follow the rules, and the Westminster elite who set – and broke – them?

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Viruses mutate all the time, writes Professor HUGH PENNINGTON

There’s no need to panic! A new variant of coronavirus sounds scary, but viruses mutate all the time, writes Professor HUGH PENNINGTON

The phrase ‘new variant of coronavirus associated with faster spread’, uttered in sombre tones by Matt Hancock in the Commons yesterday, conjures up terrors of some hitherto unseen mutant pathogen scything through the civilian population: a new plague altogether.

In fact, the reality is much more prosaic. The simple fact is that all viruses mutate.

It is a normal occurrence, happening all the time, and is not something to be particularly alarmed about.

The phrase ‘new variant of coronavirus associated with faster spread’, uttered in sombre tones by Matt Hancock (pictured)

Infection rate data for December 8 shows that the worst affected areas of England are now mostly confined to the East, South East and London

Infection rate data for December 8 shows that the worst affected areas of England are now mostly confined to the East, South East and London

The flu virus does so more readily than Covid, which is why scientists develop a new vaccine against it every year.

There is nothing in itself alarming about a virus mutating: in the vast majority of cases, this makes little difference to how much disease it causes or how fast it spreads.

A lot of the mutations are down to faults in the ‘proof-reading’ operation when the DNA or RNA multiplies or replicates.

A rise in infections means London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be put under Tier Three curbs

A rise in infections means London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be put under Tier Three curbs

Mr Hancock chose his language carefully. He did not say the ¿new variant¿ was ¿causing¿ the spike in cases in London, he said it is merely ¿associated¿ with it ¿ not at all the same thing. Pictured: Shoppers in Regent Street, London

Mr Hancock chose his language carefully. He did not say the ‘new variant’ was ‘causing’ the spike in cases in London, he said it is merely ‘associated’ with it – not at all the same thing. Pictured: Shoppers in Regent Street, London 

Some viruses mutate more than others. The Covid virus is one which has fewer mutations but they still happen.

If I were to be unkind to our Health Secretary, I would accuse him of having launched a new ‘Project Fear’ yesterday to justify a further tightening of restrictions – and to buttress the new ‘lockdown’ of London as it is placed under Tier Three restrictions.

The lamentable failings of contact tracing and other measures are coming back to haunt us in a serious second wave.

The lamentable failings of contact tracing and other measures are coming back to haunt us in a serious second wave. Pictured: London infection rates by borough week to December 6

The lamentable failings of contact tracing and other measures are coming back to haunt us in a serious second wave. Pictured: London infection rates by borough week to December 6

Hence Mr Hancock’s overblown rhetoric that a new mutated form of Covid was stalking London and the Home Counties, driving exponential rises in transmission. The truth is that the virus that surfaced in London in the spring is, in many minor respects, genetically different from the one now making such an unwelcome return.

But both have largely the same basic genetic sequence, or what might be called the virus’s ‘fingerprint’ – and both cause comparable levels of disease.

Mr Hancock chose his language carefully. He did not say the ‘new variant’ was ‘causing’ the spike in cases in London, he said it is merely ‘associated’ with it – not at all the same thing. 

Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at Aberdeen University, Professor Hugh Pennington (pictured)

Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology at Aberdeen University, Professor Hugh Pennington (pictured)

Moreover, he went on: ‘There is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease … and it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine.’

Quite. No need to panic. But Mr Hancock perhaps showed the true purpose of his statement when he added: ‘It shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules.’

The Government’s priorities are all wrong. Covid-19, whatever its variant, does not kill indiscriminately. Rather, it cruelly targets the elderly and the weak, and we have learnt a great deal about how to protect and treat them better.

Mr Hancock (pictured) perhaps showed the true purpose of his statement when he added: ¿It shows we¿ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules¿

Mr Hancock (pictured) perhaps showed the true purpose of his statement when he added: ‘It shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules’

We have also learned the hard way that the main means of transmission is within the home, particularly multi-generational homes. 

This lay behind the rapid spikes in England’s northern towns earlier in the year – and it has lessons for all of us mixing together at Christmas. Mr Hancock might have focused on that, instead of resorting to irresponsible scaremongering.

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ALEXANDER VON SCHOENBURG: Why my fellow Germans DO want a Brexit deal

What happened yesterday regarding the Brexit talks was reminiscent of the Battle of Waterloo – at least the version taught in my German school.

The French had Britain on the brink of defeat, when Prussian troops stormed in and reprieved them.

Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier – a former foreign minister of France, don’t forget – and his francophone troops were ready to declare all further negotiations futile and walk away when Germany’s EU ambassador relayed a message from Berlin.

Alexander Von Schoenburg (pictured), editor-at-large of Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper Bild

Our foreign minister Heiko Maas insisted it was time to end the doctrinaire approach and ‘start looking for a political solution’. If that meant talks had to go on beyond Sunday night, then so be it. As we have seen, his intervention proved decisive.

At around the same time, a press conference was taking place at Germany’s Bundeskanzleramt, the Chancellery.

It was designed to be solely devoted to explaining Germany’s new Covid measures but one journalist asked whether the Chancellor Angela Merkel was in favour of the Brexit negotiations continuing.

She replied: ‘One should try everything that is possible to reach an agreement.’

That word ‘everything’ highlights the difference between the German and the French positions.

From the very beginning of the Brexit talks, there have been two schools of thought prevailing on the continent. Pictured: Prime Minister Boris Johnson with EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels

From the very beginning of the Brexit talks, there have been two schools of thought prevailing on the continent. Pictured: Prime Minister Boris Johnson with EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels 

From the very beginning of the Brexit talks, there have been two schools of thought prevailing on the continent.

The German approach has always been to offer Britain a tailor-made deal that is more favourable than the one reached with Norway, or even with Switzerland.

The argument being that the size of Britain’s economy justifies a more delicate approach. Contentious areas could be sidestepped via extended transitional periods.

The second school of thought, favoured by those in the Francophone block, argued the outcome had to be so detrimental to Britain that no other member state would ever again dare go down the road of secession. In short, Britain needed to be punished.

The running gag in Brussels was that whenever the French anti-secessionist general Michel Barnier was away and non-French-speaking civil servants were running the show, negotiations were constructive. When he had to leave the negotiating table and self-isolate after a colleague contracted Covid, for example, there are said to have been a few minor breakthroughs.

But when he returned to the negotiating table, the tone of the talks turned distinctly hostile, thanks to Barnier’s insistence that the UK must abide by EU regulatory changes made after it leaves the bloc.

Germany, of course, has much more to lose from a No Deal conclusion than France.

Last year we exported €80billion (£73billion) of goods and services to the UK – which is the world’s biggest buyer of German cars, accounting for almost one in five of our motoring exports. Volkswagen alone sold 200,000 cars in Britain last year. You are also big buyers of German pharmaceuticals, chemicals and petroleum products.

Volkswagen (pictured) alone sold 200,000 cars in Britain last year. You are also big buyers of German pharmaceuticals, chemicals and petroleum products

Volkswagen (pictured) alone sold 200,000 cars in Britain last year. You are also big buyers of German pharmaceuticals, chemicals and petroleum products

Given that our ‘golden decade’ of growth stuttered to a halt last year and the economy has since been devastated by the pandemic, the last thing we need is a tariff barrier to one of our biggest markets.

After all, Britain is not just any old member of the EU. The UK economy is bigger than the 11 smallest EU member states combined. In effect, the EU is shrinking from 27 member states to 16.

We are now at an historical turning point. On Friday, German foreign minister Maas rightly said that future generations will judge us harshly if we walk away from the talks now.

This amounted to a veto from Berlin against the EU Commission’s hawkish stance towards Britain. Monsieur Barnier’s strategy, to force Britain into a position of such despair that it would be forced to come grovelling back some time in the future, has effectively been rebuffed by Berlin.

From what I hear from those close to Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, the EU had ceased negotiating in earnestness long before Prime Minister Johnson’s fruitless journey for that dinner in Brussels last Wednesday.

Ursula bossed him around in front of the cameras and served him fish and an Australian dessert – a not so subtle hint as to where this whole affair is heading.

But as Mr Johnson’s plane waited to take him back to London, journalists in Berlin were briefed that Chancellor Merkel was in favour of a face-saving solution for Britain – one that would preserve your sovereignty in so far as there is such a thing in a world growing ever more interdependent.

Alas, the sources told us, Mrs Merkel’s former protegee Ursula had told her in no uncertain terms that it is the prerogative of Brussels and of Brussels alone to conduct all last-minute negotiations and any interference from single national governments was regarded as unwelcome interference. This, Mrs von der Leyen insisted, was the only way to safeguard the interests of all member states collectively.

The sources told us, Mrs Merkel¿s (pictured) former protegee Ursula had told her in no uncertain terms that it is the prerogative of Brussels and of Brussels alone

The sources told us, Mrs Merkel’s (pictured) former protegee Ursula had told her in no uncertain terms that it is the prerogative of Brussels and of Brussels alone

Yesterday’s change of course is a sign of hope, that Paris – and with it Brussels – is coming to its senses.

It would be a grave misreading of Britain’s determination to take back control from the EU, to punish you now on the basis that a future government will knock on our door asking politely for re-entry.

Needless to say, the negotiations could still fail but, if they do, it could be a blessing in disguise.

Once you are out completely, even if it is on WTO-terms, you may well look back on 2020 as the year in which you managed to escape the dead hand of Brussels and regain your role as a global player with a distinctly more liberal, more entrepreneur-friendly and hence more attractive and innovative place to do business.

Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) might be slightly bossy ¿ but the good thing from your point of view is that she is not French but German

Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) might be slightly bossy – but the good thing from your point of view is that she is not French but German

A kind of Singapore on Thames is exactly what is feared most in Berlin and this is why Germany will do everything it takes to avoid a trade war and to get Monsieur Barnier and France off their high horse.

Ursula von der Leyen might be slightly bossy – but the good thing from your point of view is that she is not French but German.

In fact, she is from Lower Saxony, a place which not only has particularly close ties to Britain but is the region where Volkswagen’s headquarters is located.

With the entreaties of Mrs Merkel and Germany’s foreign minister Maas ringing in her ears, my prediction is that Mrs von der Leyen will go that extra mile the French seem incapable of going.

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Covid and Christmas are to blame for this chaos – NOT Brexit, writes ROSS CLARK

For some diehard Remainers, the images are a vision of what is to come after Britain leaves the European Union – especially if No Deal is in play.

Snaking queues of lorries on the approach road to Dover port and far beyond; shipping containers piling up on docksides; a logjam of goods for distribution, from furniture and bikes to toys, hi-tech gadgets and car parts, amid rumours of food left rotting where it is offloaded.

Such is the mounting chaos in UK ports right now that there are fears that Christmas will be ruined for millions of families who won’t get the goods and gifts they have ordered in time, while food prices soar because supermarkets are without stock to replenish shelves.

The cause is not, however, Brexit. Instead, a potent combination of events is to blame.

A potent combination of events have combined to put Britain’s ports under huge strain but Brexit is not to blame. Pictured: Lorries queue in Dover on December 11

Firstly and most importantly, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted international shipping from Asia, and there is a shortage of containers in China because empty ones have not been returned from ports around the world.

At the same time, anxious British consumers have begun stockpiling goods – leading to increased demand from suppliers – ahead of a possible No Deal Brexit. Demand has also risen because of Christmas.

To further complicate matters, there are unusually large incoming shipments of PPE to be dealt with dockside, plus delays for freight lorries at the Channel Tunnel. In addition, the dockside workforce has been hammered by illness or the need to isolate because of exposure to the virus.

All of these factors have combined to put Britain’s ports under huge strain. Some ships are now by passing our ports altogether and heading instead for Rotterdam.

Felixstowe, which handles 40 per cent of UK container traffic, has been hardest hit, but problems are spreading to Southampton and London Gateway.

Companies including Apple, fashion chains Primark and River Island, sofa firm DFS and the folding-bicycle manufacturer Brompton have all warned that their products now face lengthy delays and, in some cases, may not arrive here for many weeks.

Honda announced this week it had suspended car production because of a shortage of imported parts.

For Felixstowe, the biggest problem appears to be the containers of PPE for the NHS and care homes which the Government’s freight forwarders have been slow to move out of the port. At one point there were 11,000 containers of PPE sitting on the dockside, although port authorities now say the backlog will be cleared by the end of this week.

Such is the mounting chaos in UK ports right now that there are fears that Christmas will be ruined for millions of families who won’t get the goods and gifts they have ordered in time. Pictured: A lorry driver reacts as he queues to enter the port of Dover

Such is the mounting chaos in UK ports right now that there are fears that Christmas will be ruined for millions of families who won’t get the goods and gifts they have ordered in time. Pictured: A lorry driver reacts as he queues to enter the port of Dover

Some 2000 extra trucks are passing through each day, the rise coming especially in the direction of the UK

Some 2000 extra trucks are passing through each day, the rise coming especially in the direction of the UK

A Channel Tunnel spokesman, meanwhile, is blaming the ‘sheer volume of traffic from stockpiling, pre-Christmas build-up and transporting medical supplies and vaccines for Covid care’.

Some 2000 extra trucks are passing through each day, the rise coming especially in the direction of the UK.

Throw into the mix a traffic managing system that has done little to ease congestion and it’s no wonder chaos has ensued.

The pictures this week of long tailbacks in Dover were the direct result of an operation called the Traffic Access Protocol (TAP). This controls traffic lights on the A20 to avoid overcrowding in the Kentish coastal town – and blocks the main trunk road to the town instead.

After TAP was lifted yesterday, traffic began flowing freely again.

At the heart of this crisis, however, is the pandemic’s impact on shipping traffic from China and the Far East, which is affecting ports around the world. Demand has surged as businesses restock after lockdowns and consumers start spending again.

There are unusually large incoming shipments of PPE to be dealt with dockside.  At one point there were 11,000 containers of PPE sitting on the dockside, although port authorities now say the backlog will be cleared by the end of this week. Pictured: Shipping containers pile up on dockside in Southampton

There are unusually large incoming shipments of PPE to be dealt with dockside.  At one point there were 11,000 containers of PPE sitting on the dockside, although port authorities now say the backlog will be cleared by the end of this week. Pictured: Shipping containers pile up on dockside in Southampton

Companies caught out when Chinese factories closed down in January as Covid first struck are now moving away from so-called just-in-time supply lines to stock up on key components and other goods, further boosting demand.

At America’s busiest cargo complex, LA-Long Beach in California, 20 cargo ships lie anchored, unable to offload their shipments. In Australia, a long-running industrial dispute between dock workers and the port authorities is adding to the long delays in offloading and distributing goods.

Britain is one of the most enthusiastic trading nations in the world: A small, densely populated island with a limited number of very compact ports. There are always vast numbers of lorries and containers coming into and out of the country, linked by a barely adequate road system.

The Government has taken a number of steps to alleviate hold-ups when the new customs checks come into force on January 1 in post-Brexit Britain.

An inland customs facility is being built just outside Ashford in Kent to process lorries before they reach Dover or the Channel Tunnel.

This weekend, trials will begin of a new barrier system to allow contraflow traffic on the M20 in the event that lorries have to be held on the motorway.

If no trade deal is agreed with the EU before the transition period ends on January 1, there will certainly be some problems at British ports.

But the bigger picture is that as the global economy is starting to recover from a very sharp contraction, we are only beginning to realise just how much it relies on freight transport.

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SARAH VINE: What sour grapes to carp at William and Kate’s feelgood tour of Britain

As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge sat shivering on a bench at Batley station in West Yorkshire, I’m sure the thought of being at home in front of the fire with their three children must have crossed their minds.

Quite apart from the biting cold and the quaint conditions aboard the royal train (separate beds, a Formica dining table and a suspicious looking amount of plywood), the run-up to Christmas is stressful enough for any parent, with end-of-term plays, endless school fundraisers and teachers’ presents to worry about.

Kate is very hands-on with all that sort of stuff. The last thing she — or frankly anyone — needs at this time of year is a three-day, 1,250-mile work trip, let alone one where you have to look a) camera ready at all times and b) utterly ecstatic to be there.

Nevertheless, there she was, alongside her husband — stylish, smiling and unflappable, just as she always is.

Above all, doing her duty. 

Taking station: Wills and Kate shiver on the Batley platform in West Yorkshire during their second day of a three-day tour across the country

That’s an unfashionable concept in this day and age, where private needs too often seem to eclipse public ones. And a reminder that, for all Kate and William’s commitment to their young brood, they will never shirk in their commitment to their wider family, that is to say the British people.

This pandemic has, like all emergencies, really sorted the sheep from the goats. And few public figures have come into their own like Kate and William. While other royals have taken a back seat — either due to circumstance or desire — the Duke and Duchess seem to have redoubled their efforts to connect with the nation at a time of deep crisis.

In their own seemingly effortless way, they have made themselves quietly essential.

It’s been a masterclass in how royalty can remain relevant in the modern age, and their popularity has rightly increased because of it. All of which probably explains why Nicola Sturgeon has been so grumpy about their trip to Scotland, and why the Welsh Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, has been equally disobliging.

Both were chilly on the issue of the royal couple travelling during Covid restrictions, even though — as Kensington Palace has been at pains to point out — they’ve adhered to the letter to all the guidelines. And, of course, William has already had Covid.

But let’s be honest, it’s not really about the rules, is it?

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pictured during a ministerial statement in the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, on the first day of the largest immunisation programme in UK history

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pictured during a ministerial statement in the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, on the first day of the largest immunisation programme in UK history

Kate and William are victims of their own success. Because at a time when both devolved administrations have seized the opportunities presented by Covid to foster divisions and further dreams of independence, the Duke and Duchess are a reminder of all that is good about the British Crown and the Union, which Sturgeon especially is keen to dissolve.

Having so successfully entranced our Celtic cousins with visions of a brave new Scottish dawn, how inconvenient to have Kate and William showing up — twinkly ambassadors for all the morale-boosting qualities of royalty.

It must be especially galling because until they came along, things were going so well for anti-monarchists. As well as Prince Andrew’s troubles over the Jeffrey Epstein affair, 2020 has also been the year of Megxit, with arguably the Royal Family’s brightest stars turning their backs on the UK.

For opponents of the royals, it must have seemed as though all their Christmases had come at once. But they hadn’t bargained on Wills and Kate.

Wales' Health Minister Vaughan Gething holds a press conference on the Covid-19 pandemic at the Welsh Government buildings in Cathays Park on October 5 in Cardiff, Wales

Wales’ Health Minister Vaughan Gething holds a press conference on the Covid-19 pandemic at the Welsh Government buildings in Cathays Park on October 5 in Cardiff, Wales

This is a couple who could easily have spent the pandemic holed up in one of several palaces, eating lime creams and ordering flunkeys to bring them more quails’ eggs.

Instead, they’ve made themselves endlessly available, and not in a look-at-me-aren’t-I-a-special-raindrop sort of a way like Harry and Meghan (who prefer to express their commitment to a nation stricken by Covid from the comfort of their £11 million mansion in California), but altruistically and with palpable sincerity.

For two people to show such maturity and solid moral compass at such a relatively young age — they are both just 38 — demonstrates that whatever else may befall Britain, the long-term future of the monarchy is in safe hands.

What a comfort, not just for the Queen — but for the nation as a whole in these uncertain times.

A feathered fiasco

According to a Mumsnet user, having a real Christmas tree makes you middle class, whereas a plastic one is a sign of more working-class credentials.

If you’re upper class, however, all bets are off, as evidenced by the one belonging to the Duchess of Rutland, chatelaine of Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, which is topped with a giant (artificial) peacock. It’s quite the naffest thing I’ve ever seen — and proof that good taste has absolutely nothing to do with so-called breeding.

The demise of the Ikea catalogue — the Swedish flat-pack chain has announced this year’s print edition will be the last — is the end of an era.

Oh, how I’ll miss poring over its pages, harbouring storage-box fantasies of space-saving Scandi living.

Now I’ll have to make do with shopping online, loading my basket with delights only to discover that the one thing I really want is out of stock. Some things, at least, will never change.

After the year from hell, it feels like the whole nation needs a holiday, especially frontline staff. But one man who also deserves a break is Matt Hancock, who broke down in tears yesterday morning on TV. 

His work may not be physically gruelling — but the mental pressure is immense. If anyone deserves a round of applause in the week Britain rolled out a vaccine, it’s Hancock.

Show off those Spanx? No thanks

If you’re going to show them off to the whole world, Katy Perry style, doesn’t that rather defeat the object?, writes Sarah Vine

If you’re going to show them off to the whole world, Katy Perry style, doesn’t that rather defeat the object?, writes Sarah Vine

Funny, I always thought the whole point of Spanx was to create an illusion of svelteness where none actually exists. If you’re going to show them off to the whole world, Katy Perry style, doesn’t that rather defeat the object? Or is that the kind of thing only unreconstructed pre-body-positive old bags like me say? 

A £248,000 robot has just been invented that can cook a meal — and tidy up afterwards. Does it do Christmas dinner? Might just be worth it. 

I appreciate that break-dancing is a physically challenging activity — but an Olympic sport? Whatever next . . . twerking? 

Hurly-Burley for corona Kay

I was tempted to give Sky News presenter Kay Burley the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the hoo-ha over her 60th birthday celebration, where it appears that she broke the Covid Tier Two rules by dining with colleagues in a London restaurant. 

But then I remembered that she has been less than relaxed about certain other people’s breaches, notably Dominic Cummings’s lockdown trip to County Durham (which, while controversial, was at least for family reasons and not just for the sake of a party), and I thought better of it. 

Kay Burley pictured attending the British Heart Foundation's 'The Beating Hearts Ball' at the Guildhall on February 20, 2018 in London

Kay Burley pictured attending the British Heart Foundation’s ‘The Beating Hearts Ball’ at the Guildhall on February 20, 2018 in London

After Eltiona Skana, the schizophrenic who stabbed seven-year-old Emily Jones to death, was sentenced to life, let us not forget Jonty Bravery, another sick individual who threw a boy of six off a viewing platform at London’s Tate Modern. 

In both cases, the authorities were aware of their criminal tendencies. Skana had stabbed her own mother — so how was she able to buy the craft knife that she used to kill Emily?

It’s not just the attackers who must answer for their actions, but a system that identifies them as a danger — and fails to stop them carrying out their terrible crimes.

I made a terrible mistake on Monday night. I watched the new series of The Vicar Of Dibley. Gosh it was depressing, not least because so many of the original cast are no longer with us but mostly because neither is Dawn French’s once great talent.

But that’s what happens when you combine comedy with political correctness: dreary, finger-wagging mediocrity. I’d rather watch Mrs Brown’s Boys. And that’s saying something.

Dawn French pictured as the Reverend Geraldine Granger in The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown

Dawn French pictured as the Reverend Geraldine Granger in The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown

Yesterday was Founder’s Day at Eton, described as ‘traditionally a day of . . . mischief’. It was also the day Will Knowland, the teacher sacked for refusing to remove a provocative lecture in defence of masculinity from YouTube, attended a hearing challenging his dismissal.

The outcome of the appeal is yet to be decided. But if mischief is a core principle of life at Eton, surely Mr Knowland — and the debate he has generated over feminism and free speech — should be tolerated.

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DOMINIC LAWSON: In the clear after my speed awareness course? Hang on there, not so fast… 

Last month, Sussex Police were good enough to write to me. Their letter began: ‘Notice of Intended Prosecution.’ That got my attention.

It went on to say that ‘it is intended to take proceedings against the driver of motor vehicle…’ — and gave a car number plate exactly the same as mine.

Apparently it had been snapped by a police camera doing 36 mph in a 30 mph zone near Brighton.

Yes, that was me, no question. A fair cop.

Sussex Police informed me last month that my car had been snapped by a police camera doing 36 mph in a 30 mph zone near Brighton (file image)

To avoid prosecution, Sussex Police gave me a choice: pay £100 and have three points put on my hitherto clean licence, or pay £90 and attend a ‘speed awareness course’, which, on completion, would wipe away the three points even before they were issued.

I rang up my insurance company: they told me that my annual premium could rise by as much as £250 if I lost my zero points rating.

Surprise

So, an easy decision to make. And even easier because of Covid-19.

In normal circumstances, I would need to have driven to Maidstone, a full hour from my home (at legal speeds), and then spent four hours in the company of up to 23 other delinquent drivers doing the course.

Now, though, the courses are done online — via Zoom — and last only two-and-a-half hours (on the grounds that any longer is more than folk can manage on-screen).

So last Wednesday I found myself in the virtual company of eight other ‘volunteers’. Just two of the group were women, which was the sort of ratio I expected.

What did surprise me was that only one of us could be remotely described as young — and he seemed far from a boy racer in personality. Perhaps this was because the speed awareness course is only for those narrowly over the limit when clocked.

Our NDORS (National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme) instructor was an avuncular ex-policeman with an impressive handlebar moustache.

To avoid prosecution, Sussex Police gave me a choice: pay £100 and have three points put on my hitherto clean licence, or pay £90 and attend a 'speed awareness course'

To avoid prosecution, Sussex Police gave me a choice: pay £100 and have three points put on my hitherto clean licence, or pay £90 and attend a ‘speed awareness course’

Early on, he told us of how, on a number of occasions, he’d had to visit homes to tell someone that a member of their family was not coming back, having been killed in a ‘collision’ (as the police nowadays refer to what they once called ‘accidents’). That made us sit up.

We also got a fascinating lesson in physics. A film was shown of a trained driver on a race track, in perfect, dry driving conditions. He would go at certain speeds, and then, on a signal, brake hard.

When travelling at 30 mph, it took 23 metres before he managed to bring the car to a stop.

The same exercise was then carried out when he was driving the car at 31 mph. At the point on the track where he had earlier come to rest, his car was still travelling at 8mph: enough to make a difference to the rear end of any car that might have been in front of him on a real road (and a really nasty difference to any pedestrian).

It’s a long time since I did physics at school, so this effect of a mere 1 mph over the 30 mph limit came as a surprise to me.

Fault

I was less surprised by the consequences when the test driver performed the same hard-braking exercise travelling at 70 mph and then 80 mph.

The 70 mph test saw the driver taking 96 metres to come to a stop. But when braking at 80 mph, his car was still moving at 39 mph at the point where it had stopped in the 70 mph test.

   

More from Dominic Lawson for the Daily Mail…

These were the easy bits of the course: we needed to do nothing but watch.

Less comfortable was the section in which we were each invited to explain why we exceeded the speed limit, and then to imagine if we had injured or killed someone as a result. We were then asked, in turn, to tell the group what we would feel. It was almost as if I had stumbled into a meeting of ‘speeders anonymous’.

Two of the participants said that they had broken the speed limit because they had been ‘tailgated’ — or in other words, it was really someone else’s fault. As we were all getting along so well together, I thought it best not to point that out — and in any case, it was the instructor’s job to do that, if anyone’s.

But he remained studiously non-judgmental, merely recommending that if being tailgated persistently by another driver, it was best to make it easy for him (or, less plausibly, her) to overtake and ‘let it be someone else’s problem, not yours’.

Absolution

Anyway, the two-and-a-half hours went remarkably quickly — as time does when you are learning things. At the end of it, our instructor told us (almost like a priest delivering absolution) that our points had been forgiven. We would be getting a letter to that effect from the Sussex Police.

Before logging off, he told us that he didn’t want to see any of us again: and in any case, if we reoffended within three years, we would not be eligible for another speed awareness course and would have to take the points on our licence.

Our NDORS (National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme) instructor was an avuncular ex-policeman with an impressive handlebar moustache

Our NDORS (National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme) instructor was an avuncular ex-policeman with an impressive handlebar moustache

Two days later, Rosa, my wife, told me that I had got a letter from the police (it said so on the envelope).

That’s quick, I said: that will be the one telling me that I had attended the NDORS course and everything is fine.

Well, you should open it anyway, she responded. I did so. It was from Kent Police, not the Sussex boys. And it began: ‘Notice of Intended Prosecution… for the Alleged Offence of excess speed over the 30 mph limit on the A267: the vehicle speed was 36 mph.’

I had done it again, on November 30, three days before I attended the speed awareness course.

‘Does it say what you thought,’ asked my wife? ‘No,’ I said weakly. ‘It does not say what I thought.’

Then I told Rosa what was in the letter. I have rarely seen her laugh so much. Which was fair enough, as I had earlier told her how salutary I had found the message of the speed awareness course.

And I did, honestly, officer.

Crown writer is royally hypocritical  

Last week we learned, courtesy of an analysis by the Guardian, that the number of people turning down an honour from the Queen — most on grounds of political principle or republicanism — has more than doubled over the past nine years.

But someone who, in 2015, had no hesitation in accepting the honour of Commander of the Order of the British Empire was Peter Morgan.

Yes, Peter Morgan: the creator and writer of The Crown, which has broadcast, most profitably, untruths and calumnies about the Queen and her family.

Peter Morgan, the creator and writer of The Crown, accepted the honour of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2015

Peter Morgan, the creator and writer of The Crown, accepted the honour of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2015

Allegedly these were just ‘dramatic licence’, required to make the story more riveting to a global audience via Netflix. In fact, Morgan had an agenda beyond a mere desire to boost ratings.

In an interview with the Sunday Times three years ago, he said that the Queen was ‘a woman of limited intelligence’ (actually, none of us has unlimited intelligence, not even Mr Morgan); he added that she and her family were like ‘a mutating virus’ and that the monarchy as an institution is ‘insane’.

And in 2019 he referred to the monarchy as ‘indefensible . . . so bloody ridiculous’.

The popular Netflix series has broadcast, most profitably, untruths and calumnies about the Queen and her family

Morgan’s views are not outlandish: republicanism is a perfectly respectable position. But these remarks not only make me wonder if his portrayal of the Royal Family in The Crown was insidiously political as well as personally cruel, but also why he wanted to roll up to Buckingham Palace to collect a bauble whose kudos stems in large part from its connection to an institution that he despises.

My tentative conclusion is that he is a stinking hypocrite, whose vanity is greater than his principles.

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DAN HODGES: How Vladimir Putin’s anti-vaxxers are trying to use Covid to kill us

Vladimir Putin doesn’t want you to take the Covid vaccine. 

‘We’ve been tracking the anti-vaxxer propaganda, and a lot of it is linked to his bot-farm in St Petersburg,’ a Minister told me.

‘Part of it is trying to sow the usual disinformation and chaos. And part is due to the fact he’s worried about Russia being seen to lag behind on producing its own vaccine.’

Up until now, Britain’s anti-vax movement has appeared to be the preserve of a bunch of misfits and oddballs. 

In May, the Godhead of UK conspiracy theorists, David Icke, was kicked off social media for claiming the coronavirus vaccine would be used to implant microchips in the population.

Vladimir Putin (pictured) doesn’t want you to take the Covid vaccine. ‘We’ve been tracking the anti-vaxxer propaganda, and a lot of it is linked to his bot-farm in St Petersburg,’ a Minister told me

And last week, Piers Corbyn – brother of that other Godhead, Jeremy – was convicted of breaching lockdown restrictions while protesting as part of his own Covid conspiracy crusade.

WILL MATT BAG HIMSELF A JAB

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has boldly taken up the challenge from our very own Piers Morgan to take the vaccine live on GMTV. 

But I understand there’s a snag. 

Hancock is only 42, and the cut-off for the first phase of vaccinations is 50. 

‘Matt’s desperate to do it,’ a ministerial colleague tells me, ‘and he’s looking for a way round the rules. 

He’s been telling people that as Health Secretary he’s technically an NHS worker, and that could bump him up the queue.’ 

Dr Hancock, I presume. 

‘It doesn’t inject any virus but POISONS for satanic DNA altering + fertility trashing,’ he tweeted defiantly, after a judge ruled his arrest at the Hyde Park protest had been necessary and proportionate.

But now, with the vaccine that could finally end our Covid nightmare about to be rolled out, Britain’s overseas enemies are mobilising.

On Wednesday, Putin’s international mouthpiece, Russia Today, greeted news of UK vaccine authorisation by reporting that ‘Britain became the first nation in the world to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for widespread use on Wednesday. 

The announcement was delivered in pompous style by the government’.

The article was headlined: ‘Britain’s Pfizer vaccine announcement gives anti-vaxxers unlikely boost: blamed on Russia without any evidence.’

There’s plenty of evidence. Putin began leveraging the anti-vaxxer movement as part of his destabilisation operation long before the appearance of Covid.

In 2018, a report by the American Johns Hopkins University revealed how Russia had identified vaccinations as a ‘wedge issue’. 

A number of the accounts that had been established to interfere in the 2016 US election were found to also be engaging heavily in the anti-vaccination debate.

According to the report’s authors, ‘by playing both sides, they erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases’. 

Which is exactly what the Kremlin is now trying to do in the midst of a global pandemic.

As soon as it emerged that the Oxford vaccine was making progress, GCHQ was tasked with defending it from a Russian misinformation campaign. 

And last week the Army mobilised its shadowy 77th Brigade, which specialises in ‘Counter-adversarial Information Activity’, with the mission to specifically counter anti-Covid vaccine cyber activity from Russian and Chinese operatives.

But while our spooks and soldiers are deploying, there is uncertainty in Downing Street about the best way to confront Putin and his dark-net saboteurs. 

‘One of the problems we have with this stuff is whenever you talk about it, you boost it,’ a Minister explained. 

Up until now, Britain’s anti-vax movement has appeared to be the preserve of a bunch of misfits and oddballs. But now, with the vaccine that could finally end our Covid nightmare about to be rolled out, Britain’s overseas enemies are mobilising (stock image)

Up until now, Britain’s anti-vax movement has appeared to be the preserve of a bunch of misfits and oddballs. But now, with the vaccine that could finally end our Covid nightmare about to be rolled out, Britain’s overseas enemies are mobilising (stock image)

‘So if you go out and try to combat anti-vax propaganda, unless you’re careful you find you are actually promoting anti-vax propaganda.’

Another issue is Boris Johnson’s personal world view. While he has no time for the anti-vax conspiracy theorists, his libertarian instincts mean he has sympathy for those who are wary of creeping ‘vaccine authoritarianism’. 

That’s why he has resisted calls for it to be mandatory. And why, I’m told, there are no plans to make vaccination compulsory among his Ministers. ‘His feeling is that’s not the British way of doing things,’ a senior Government source says. ‘It’s not what we do.’

And then there’s a view that by taking on the anti-vaxxer movement too directly – and being seen to push the vaccine too aggressively – in an era of heightened scepticism towards ‘the Establishment’, his entreaties could have the opposite effect.

‘If you push too hard it can be counter-productive,’ another Government insider says. ‘It’s important we’re not seen to be forcing this on people. It’s not just that it’s not the right thing to do – it wouldn’t actually work.’

All of which is fair. But the reality is that when it comes to dealing with the anti-vaxxer movement, the gloves have to come off now.

Putin is trying to use Covid to kill people on the streets of Britain just as surely as he did when his agents released novichok on the streets of Salisbury. Pictured: Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian spy critically ill after suspected poisoning in Salisbury

Putin is trying to use Covid to kill people on the streets of Britain just as surely as he did when his agents released novichok on the streets of Salisbury. Pictured: Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian spy critically ill after suspected poisoning in Salisbury

Concerns about how the Government has managed the lockdown are legitimate. But mad conspiracy theories about the Covid vaccine are not. We can no longer simply dismiss stories about evil government schemes to control their populace as the wild ramblings of a few harmless eccentrics. They now form part of a campaign of state-sponsored terrorism.

People are going to die as a result of these lies. And if public faith in the vaccine is undermined significantly, a lot of people are going to die.

We are not simply under attack from the Covid virus. We’re also under direct attack by a hostile foreign power. 

Putin is trying to use Covid to kill people on the streets of Britain just as surely as he did when his agents released novichok on the streets of Salisbury.

Boris faces an Eton mess

As the PM ponders a reshuffle, I’m told there’s talk of sending a bold message to ‘Red Wall’ seats by imposing what No 10 is calling ‘The seven per cent rule’.

‘Boris could show he’s serious to Red Wall Tories by committing to appoint a Cabinet that reflects the country,’ a Minister tells me, ‘and the way he could do that is by guaranteeing not more than seven per cent of the Cabinet are from public schools.’

A cull of Old Etonians? Does the Bullingdon Boy really have it in him? 

So we have to fight back. All of us. If people like Piers Corbyn march again to peddle their lies, then the police and the courts should act.

If they take to their social-media accounts to repeat the lies spread by David Icke, then the social-media companies should act.

If Vladimir Putin continues to wage his campaign of state sponsored terror, then Boris and his Ministers need to act.

And when we see any of these lies circulating, each of has to speak out against them.

This is not a ‘culture war’ issue. It’s a real war – literally a matter of life and death. It’s not an extension of Brexit, or even an extension of the debate about how to best respond to Covid. It’s a way of ending that debate. Of eradicating the scourge of Covid for good.

Yes, Boris is right not to force the vaccine down people’s throats. But he can’t simply hope that if we ignore them, Putin and his anti-vax Lord Haw-Haws will go away. We have seen too many times in the social-media age what happens when the truth turns its back on a lie.

This morning, the St Petersburg bot-farm servers are whirring into life. Putin’s biological weapons attack on Britain is about to recommence. Exposing his lies, and trusting in the Covid vaccine, is how we defeat him.

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JOHN HUMPHRYS: Europe’s trousers are falling down… and it’s not a laughing matter 

A still taken from film Carry On Loving, starring Kenneth Williams

Brian Rix, the King of Whitehall farces, would have been proud of the plot. A leading politician is caught by the police with his trousers down and tries to escape from a sex party by jumping through a first-floor window and shinning down a drainpipe.

He leaves behind two dozen men, many of them also politicians and diplomats — and almost all of them naked. He turns out to be the man who helped rewrite his country’s constitution.

This is no hilarious stage show. It happened last week above a gay bar in Brussels and ended in court when they were all fined 250 euros each for breaking coronavirus curfew rules.

The would-be escape artist was Jozsef Szajer, a leading Hungarian MEP and founding member of his country’s ruling party. To add to the surreal nature of the whole episode, Szajer was famous for . . . his support of family values and hard line on gay sex.

While he was legging it across the rooftops of Brussels, another drama was being played out across the Channel in the rather more sedate environment of Whitehall.

On one side of the table the Eurocrats, and on the other the Brits. At stake: whether we leave the EU on January 1 with a deal or without one.

Last night, negotiations appear to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. But, given the nature of brinkmanship, it is possible that even as I write these words compromises are being agreed, a deal finalised, with diplomats smiling beneath their masks and touching elbows. If that’s so, we’re going to be hearing an awful lot of boasting over the next few days — from both sides. Sadly, neither side is likely to have much to boast about.

Saving face is what matters in this seemingly interminable process — at least as much for the EU as it is for us. That’s because the EU was founded on a dream that has been turning sour for some years now. The dream of an ever closer union.

True, there are many arch-federalists still out there. In the smaller countries such as Belgium and Luxembourg you hear of little else. And for the bureaucrats of Brussels there is no alternative. For the EU to survive it must thrive, and thriving means closer integration.

In the past, they were able to put the frighteners on any mutinous backsliders by threatening dire consequences if they resisted being drawn into a tighter embrace. But no longer.

It’s not just that one of those member states, Britain, has had the effrontery to say: ‘Stuff this for a game of soldiers — we’re off!’ It’s that so many of the remaining 27 seem increasingly unwilling to do what’s demanded of them.

The best example is what has been going on with the EU’s currency. The euro was very much the child of a crisis. When Soviet communism with its grip on Eastern Europe collapsed, the EU was faced with the prospect of an economically mighty West Germany becoming even more powerful through reunifying with the East.

To stop it happening and the EU becoming the ‘German EU’, France thought up the wheeze of keeping German power in check by abolishing the Deutschmark as well as all the other members’ currencies. Europe needed its own currency. The euro was created.

Some signed up. Some didn’t. Even so, it was the boldest move toward ‘ever closer union’ since the Common Market was born in 1957. But today the euro project is all but stalled.

Sceptics warned from the outset it wouldn’t work unless there were enormous handouts from the richer to the poorer countries. Supporters wearily replied: ‘We know. But let’s just wait for the next crisis and then, as usual, the handout will happen.’

Last night, negotiations appear to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse, writes JOHN HUMPHRYS. Pictured: EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier

Last night, negotiations appear to have taken a dramatic turn for the worse, writes JOHN HUMPHRYS. Pictured: EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier

That crisis duly came in Greece, but the money didn’t materialise and the Greeks were essentially hung out to dry. The poor are poorer. The middle class has been decimated.

The Germans refuse to fork out the vast amounts needed for the next stage in developing the euro and they’re not alone.

Then there has been the crisis of mass immigration into Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Countries on the front line such as Italy and, again, Greece, are outraged at the flat refusal of some of their so-called partners in the EU to ‘take their share’. Their justification is simple. They’re foreigners. Not our problem. And they closed their borders.

The immigration crisis highlights an even more menacing threat to the EU, which was founded on the principle of liberal democracy: one which all members, old and new, were obliged to respect. That threat comes from EU countries whose governments take pride in being self-avowed ‘illiberal democracies’.

One such country is Hungary, home of the infamous Mr Szajer.

He stood four-square with the Prime Minister Viktor Orban as he laid waste to the country’s democratic institutions. The international think tank Freedom House has accused Orban’s government of asserting control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, the courts, asylum seekers and the private sector.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen speaks during a debate last month

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen speaks during a debate last month

Katalin Cseh, one of Hungary’s few centrist MEPs, says: ‘If we do not do something now, it will threaten the stability of the union.’

Poland also stands accused of flouting the rule of law and liberal principles. Its president, Andrzej Duda, has warned that ‘LGBT ideology’ is more ‘destructive’ than Soviet communism.

Many in Brussels are watching aghast as the democratic norms enshrined in the founding principles of the union are disregarded. They watch, too, the blocking of an EU-wide Coronavirus Recovery Package worth €750bn, in which the richer countries would help the poorer, and which took for ever to hammer out. Brussels is now considering organising the rescue package outside the structures of the EU just to get it done. So much for ever closer union.

And they also watch how corruption flourishes in some of the newer members, such as Bulgaria, where polls show that 80 per cent of citizens believe corruption to be widespread. And it’s not alone.

There is growing unease among the older member states about whether the principles and beliefs that once stood at the heart of the European Union are now being flouted at will.

Whatever happens in those Brexit negotiations this weekend, it is likely that any celebrations in Brussels will be short-lived.

And for Britain? Even as one who voted Remain, I can’t help feeling we may have chosen a good time to shin down the drainpipe and leave.

Giving technology the brush-off 

What a week it has been for scientific and medical breakthroughs.

It began with approval for the first Covid-19 vaccine. Many lives will be saved.

The next day, scientists revealed what they say is a staggering breakthrough that could eventually save countless more.

The DeepMind computer has made a ‘once in a generation advance’ in learning how to predict the shape of proteins and how they do what they do. It may sound boring but the scientists say this changes everything. Research for a new drug that might take years could be done in days.

And the other breakthrough? I have discovered how to clean my teeth.

I now know I must use artificial intelligence. I have a new toothbrush which came with detailed instructions. To compare it with my old one is to compare a Tiger Moth with a stealth bomber. The blurb promises it will give me ‘the best tooth-brushing experience’ I have ever had.

There are just two problems. One is that I will have to use an app on my iPhone to connect the phone to the brush via Bluetooth.

The other is how to persuade myself that the world of pointless high-tech digital baloney which might have been put to practical use has not finally gone stark-staring bonkers.

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‘It’s the greatest scientific achievement of my lifetime’ says Professor BRENDAN WREN

Don’t be in any doubt – the development of a highly effective vaccine for Covid-19 in less than a year is an extraordinary scientific achievement, perhaps the greatest of my lifetime.

I’d put it on a par with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. It really is that transformative.

And that’s because the implications are so much wider than the vaccine’s capacity to halt this pandemic. 

Now, as a direct result of this research, new vaccines are on course to protect us from many infectious diseases – including the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

PROF BRENDAN WREN: The development of a highly effective vaccine for Covid-19 in less than a year is an extraordinary scientific achievement. Handout photo of the coronavirus vaccine being produced 

As a result of a battery of the world’s most talented scientists – frequently working in concert, rather than siloed in their own fields – humanity now has access to a raft of new, effective vaccines against the most lethal pandemic to strike our species in a century. All of us will now reap the benefits.

Vaccines are perhaps mankind’s greatest success in combating infections.

The legacy of coronavirus could be that we will soon have jabs for all kinds of other diseases, based on the game-changing platform technologies of the new Pfizer and Oxford vaccines, as well as many other technologies in the pipeline including the recent Ebola jabs.

This could have colossal knock-on effects, as related vaccines are developed for both human and livestock diseases. 

In turn, that will mean much less reliance on antibiotics – which could halt the development of multi-antibiotic resistance in bacteria, a current global imperative.

It’s a simple but profound equation: preventing disease instead of trying to cure it, which in turn means the less we use antibiotics, the less resistance is spread.

My nightmare has long been of a world in which antibiotics are no longer effective and this year’s progress holds up real hope of a solution.

 It’s an advance that goes far beyond coronavirus.

For all this to be achieved in the eight or nine months since the pandemic struck the West is astonishing. 

In one year we have made strides that would previously have been seen as too ambitious to conquer within a decade. 

Covid has spurred Britain on to incredible efforts – not just the scientists but the regulatory bodies, the logistics networks and everyone else involved.

The situation is analogous to wartime, when rapid technical progress is driven by necessity. The same compelling forces have been applied during this crisis.

The Government has been responsible for a series of disasters this year: failures over distributing protective equipment, the terrible inability to safeguard care homes, the diagnostic debacle and more. 

Now it has a chance to get something right – with a smooth and well co-ordinated nationwide vaccination programme for tens of millions of people – and be an example to the world.

Planning for this has been under way for months. There’s a feeling of confidence in the air that we’re going to get it right. 

All this has not come from a standing start. Scientists have been working on a vaccine based on RNA molecules for a long time and have built up strong background knowledge. 

Professor Brendan Wren, Professor of vaccinology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Professor Brendan Wren, Professor of vaccinology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

What few could have predicted is how effective the results have been.

To achieve immunity of more than 90 per cent is incredible. To put that in perspective: some vaccines, such as against malaria, are deployed in targeted populations even when their effectiveness is between 10 and 20 per cent.

And because RNA is not a ‘foreign body’ but a molecule that occurs naturally within our own bodies, there have been no serious side effects reported. 

From a medical viewpoint, that is nothing short of stupendous – 50,000 people have taken part in the trial and not one has reported significant problems as a result.

No wonder so many microbiologists like me are brimming with excitement at what this technology can do.

Immunity against Covid-19 is only the start. It will be the basis for safe, efficacious medicines far beyond that.

All this has been done without cutting corners on safety. The regulatory authorities are independent of government control, so they cannot be bullied into fast-tracking treatments until they have been proved safe. 

Their scientists will scrutinise every last molecule and sift all data from the trials, ensuring batches are pure and that the vaccines are safe and effective.

This could have another immensely valuable consequence – by countering the crackpot disinformation and fearmongering spread by anti-vaxxers.

I’d like to say it will shut them up for good but conspiracy theories of all sorts are a permanent curse of social media. 

What we can hope is that the overwhelming safety of the coronavirus jab will finally dispel baseless fears around the MMR vaccine and also encourage every parent to have their children vaccinated against measles – restoring Britain’s crucial measles-free status.

During the next few years, I predict that infectious diseases as a whole will be markedly less prevalent.

 It’s an incredible U-turn in the country’s health and subsequent economic prospects.

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LAURA PERRINS: ‘Jab passports’ would fuel anti-vaxx madness

Amid the wintery gloom, a series of new vaccines have been justifiably hailed as the breakthrough against coronavirus.

With Britain having ordered 357 million doses of seven different vaccines, at last there is real hope that the depressing cycle of lockdown and contagion could be broken next year.

Yet, as the Mail reported yesterday, into this optimistic scene has stepped Nadhim Zahawi, the minister responsible for vaccines, to indicate that some venues — such as sports stadiums, restaurants, cinemas and pubs — may insist on proof of vaccination to grant people entry.

This would be a profoundly illiberal, dangerous and un-British move.

Amid the wintery gloom, a series of new vaccines have been justifiably hailed as the breakthrough against coronavirus (File image) 

Salvation

Heavy-handedness and authoritarianism have characterised too much of this Government’s approach during the pandemic, from the pub curfew to the rule of six, ordering people to wear masks in shops and restricting travel and access to their loved ones.

But now a potential instrument of salvation — a vaccine — must not be allowed to be turned into a weapon of state surveillance.

According to Mr Zahawi, so-called ‘immunity passports’ would enable customers to provide proof that they ‘have been vaccinated’.

He added blandly: ‘We will make the technology as easy and accessible as possible.’

Yesterday, as anger grew about this potential new system, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove used a BBC interview to adopt a more sceptical tone.

‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves: that’s not the plan,’ he insisted. But nor did Mr Gove issue a denial. Moreover, given this Government’s record of vacillations, inconsistencies and policy reversals, it is easy to imagine that another U-turn could soon be made.

Let me be clear: a vaccine ‘passport’ would be a disaster — not only for basic freedom, but for public health, too. It would be wrong in principle and wrong in practice.

As well as being a gross invasion of personal privacy even on a limited basis, there is a clear risk of a slippery slope. Once established to arbitrate entry into cinemas and pubs, the use of these passports could be endlessly extended.

Those without them could end up being denied access to holiday travel, public transport and universities — and even healthcare, social security and certain jobs.

Yesterday, as anger grew about this potential new system, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove used a BBC interview to adopt a more sceptical tone. Above, Mr Gove pictured on Tuesday

Yesterday, as anger grew about this potential new system, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove used a BBC interview to adopt a more sceptical tone. Above, Mr Gove pictured on Tuesday 

Indeed, Australia already has a ‘no jab, no pay’ law, where parents who refuse to get their children vaccinated become ineligible for child and tax benefits.

It is a small step from there towards full, mandatory immunisation, as currently exists in parts of Europe.

France, Germany and Italy all make certain vaccinations compulsory (in Italy, for example, immunisation against diphtheria, polio and tetanus are all mandatory). This is a reflection of the historic continental attachment to the powerful state — as well as to voluble anti-vaxxer sentiment in those countries.

But that is not the tradition here. In the land that created Magna Carta, pioneered parliamentary democracy and defeated Nazi tyranny, respect for liberty runs deep.

Barred from the pub, the football stadium, the aircraft, who would feel able to refuse a jab? This compulsory vaccination by the backdoor would be another huge advance towards the Big Brother state, complete with a vast new database, extensive bureaucracy, bossy officialdom and endless regulations.

Mr Zahawi says that the scheme may be needed to send ‘a very strong message’ that this is ‘good for your family, good for your community and good for your country’.

But the law is not meant to be a vehicle for propaganda. Instead of plotting to use threats and coercion, the Government should be resorting to persuasion, trying to reassure the public about safety and seeking to convince people that it is in their own interests to have the jab.

That is also the way to deal with the anti-vaccination movement, which thrives on wild conspiracy theories.

Although I respect the fundamental right of the anti-vaxxers to protest, I reject their irresponsible gospel of delusion and fear. In fact, all my children have had their necessary jabs and I am sure my family will join the Covid vaccination programme when it reaches us.

But the biggest possible boost would be given to the anti-vaxxers’ cause if the Government went down the mandatory path, even by default. Such a policy would not only feed all their paranoia about the big state, but would give them a new pretext for martyrdom. In a climate of confrontation, public anxieties would be heightened, making any passport scheme counter-productive.

Reckless

There are a host of other practical problems. Businesses, battered by Covid, may be reluctant to act as agents of officialdom. A passport scheme might also backfire and encourage reckless or illicit activity.

Underground, passport-free venues will operate in the shadows, while a black market will develop in forged immunity certificates.

Furthermore, from the loss of computer discs to the sale of personal information, the state has an appalling recent record on protecting sensitive data. Nor will the over-stretched police have the resources to crack down on infringements, accelerating contempt for the law — and endangering public health.

Nadhim Zahawi claimed on Monday that an immunity scheme 'is the way we return the whole country to normal'

Nadhim Zahawi claimed on Monday that an immunity scheme ‘is the way we return the whole country to normal’

There are also ethical questions. Some people may have legitimate health reasons for having to refuse the jab, yet in a society where immunisation becomes the key to participation, they may be stigmatised, even ostracised.

It would be a catastrophe if we in Britain began to build a social structure based on a bureaucratic evaluation of each individual’s health.

Mr Zahawi claimed on Monday that an immunity scheme ‘is the way we return the whole country to normal’. But a Britain of identity databases and demands to see papers can never be ‘normal’. On the contrary, it will be a deeply sinister, alien place where the flag of freedom will fly low.

Rather than embarking down this road, the Government would do far better to concentrate all its energies on a successful roll-out programme.

Fiascos

That is a daunting enough challenge, requiring vast numbers of volunteers, immunisation centres and supplies of everything from glass vials to syringes and the actual doses.

Against the backdrop of PPE and testing fiascos, the Government’s record on logistics is hardly impressive. Ministers had better get it right this time, and that means they should avoid dreaming up grim fantasies about state bullying.

Earlier this week, Boris Johnson described the hope generated by the vaccines.

‘The armies of science are coming to our aid,’ he said, ‘with all the morale-boosting, bugle-blasting excitement of Wellington’s Prussian allies coming through the woods on the afternoon of Waterloo.’

Let us hope that we do not end up with another Teutonic import: the feared secret police of socialist East Germany, known as the Stasi, demanding to see our papers.

  • Laura Perrins is a former barrister and co-editor of The Conservative Woman website.