The Times Diary: Dear Santa, all I want is [next slide]

For this year’s Christmas competition I asked readers to submit letters written to Santa Claus. As ever, I received many more than I could include, and enjoyed reading them all. These are the winners, names at the bottom.

Patrick Kidd 

Dear Santa, Because of the fantastic job I did — THE BEST EVER — controlling the China virus I deserve the following: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Yours, Donald J Trump

Dear Santa, All I want is some decent soap. I can’t seem to get my hands clean these days — always one damned spot left. But it needn’t be highly scented; I’ve tried all the perfumes of Arabia to no avail.

Also, my husband needs some new glasses. He keeps seeing things that aren’t there, daggers mostly. I don’t think it’s the drink.

By the time you get to Glamis, you’re nearly home so why not stop over for a rest? I’ll make up the spare room, like I did for Duncan. You’re welcome to stay until tomorrow — and tomorrow and tomorrow. All the best, Lady Macbeth.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons, Lord President of the Council, Member of Parliament for North East Somerset presents his compliments to Saint Nicholas, Holy Hierarch, Bishop of Myra and begs to inform him that during the past twelvemonth his behaviour has been without fault. In consequence of which he humbly requests the Patron of our Yuletide Festival to furnish him with the following:

Item: One monocle

Item: A new pair of spats

Item: A carbon-neutral penny-farthing.

In joyful anticipation, he expresses his profound gratitude.

Dear Santa, Please could I have some tickets for the theatre? After a difficult few years I need a relaxing evening where nothing can go wrong. Yours, Abraham Lincoln

Dear Santa, We haven’t written for many years — I used to sign my letters Lilibet — but write now to ask for a new cabinet for one of our palaces. My husband and I are in disagreement over this. He says we have plenty. We have had plenty, but when I heard him talking about a William Kent yesterday I realised how desperately we need a new one. Please send a Lord Privy Seal, First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, etc etc, to the Palace of Westminster. Yours affectionately, E To Err

Dear Santa, There’s something we just can’t abide: politicians who cannot decide. [Next slide]

The two of us each eventide with Matt or Boris by our side [Next slide]

(Though neither of them’s qualified to lock down part or nationwide), [Next slide]

And Gavin, who should be certified, or Peston with his diatribe. [Next slide]

So next year please let’s turn the tide and get through this with British pride [Next slide]

If, Santa, will you please provide your sleigh for vaccines countrywide. Yours truly, Chris & Patrick

Listen Santa, When I asked for a cowboy outfit, I expected a profitable business not some Village People schmutter. Anyway, the chaps were too long, the waistcoat too small, and the hat blew over the side of the yacht. This year I expect a peerage. No, not porridge. If you’re looking to sell up, I’ll take the workshop — but I’m not paying the elves’ pensions. SIR Philip Green

Father Christmas, When I sent you my list of presents, I did NOT expect to wait until Christmas Day. I wanted them the same day. You’re a useless idiot. It pains me to say it but civil servants could do a better job. Priti Patel

Dear Mr Claus, Please could I have a plastic skeleton? As Secretary of State for Education I have singlehandedly guided us through these problematic months and confidently expect a promotion to Health in a reshuffle. My plan is to learn all the body parts so I can tell the doctors how to do their jobs. However, I overheard Boris telling someone I don’t know my arse from my elbow, so realised I need help. Your ’umble servant, Gav

Dear Santa, I’ve been a very good boy so please can you bring me an oven (British, of course, or your reindeer will get stuck in the queues from abroad) because my one isn’t working. A deal I recently cooked came out very flat. I was going to ask for some fish as well but I’ll be able to get loads very cheaply soon. Thanks very much, Boris Johnson

Dear Claus, You are, by edict of Parliament, instructed to stay away from our lands. Should you doubt our resolve, I remind you of the late Charles Stuart. With the grace of God, Cromwell, Protector.

Dear Father, I have been good, so far. I was a bit disappointed to get gardening equipment and a fruit tree last year. I’d love some clothes! Eve

Darling Santa, All I want for Christmas is a private island where we can live our simple lives, growing carrots and eggplants far away from PR people and photographers. And could it have a small jet and a landing strip so Harry can pop over to the mainland when we run out of oatmilk? Yours humbly, Meghan.

Dear Santa, Rather than seeking a gift, I offer one. Having observed your lifelong need to please, dress in bizarre costumes and pop down chimneys, I propose you swap your sleigh for my couch. No charge. Yours professionally, Sigmund Freud

Dear Santa, For my first Xmas can I please have a smooth exit for Papa, less vexit for Mama and a lot more bixcits for Dilyn as well as a scalextric for me. Thank you x Wilfred Johnson, aged 7 months

Dear Father Christmas, We feel rather embarrassed about sending a list since you gave us EVERYTHING we asked for last year. War, Poverty and Death are, for us, like socks, boxer shorts and a book token but, oh boy, to get Pestilence too! Wow!

However, our PR dept caution against “catastrophe fatigue” and suggest that this year we ask for a Cliff Richard CD, a pair of slippers, Quality Street and a voucher for an Unconscious Bias Course. Though if you could manage a teeny bit of cataclysmic flooding . . ? Thanks v much, White, Red, Black and Pale

Winning entries sent by Bharat Jashanmal, Vivien McCoubrey, Margaret Attlee, Pete Moore, Nicholas Cranfield, Jeremy Fox, Gerald Gouriet, Jeremy Dore, Steve Larkin, Zilma Watts, Alastair Stewart, Tina Morgan, Joan Salter, Walter Ford, Ian Elliott and Suzie Marwood.

Alas, poor Boris: PM’s go-to word for delivering bad news

It is the word the prime minister turns to when he is about to deliver bad news. And it’s become the signal for the rest of us to brace ourselves.

Nick Hopkins

Alas, it seems, is the word poor Boris knows all too well.

And according to the team behind the BBC TV show QI, it has become a staple during parliamentary debate too – it was said more than 80 times in the House of Commons in November 2020, more than any other month since 1800.

A now-unfashionable word, with its origins from Old French in the mid-13th century, “alas” was used by Shakespeare in one of his most famous and misquoted lines. In a graveyard, clutching the skull of the court jester, Hamlet declares: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio …”

Then, as now, it is word commonly used to express sorrow, grief and concern, and there’s certainly been a lot of that this year.

At his last Downing Street press briefing on 21 December, Boris Johnson used it for the umpteenth time. “As we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, this virus, alas, can move all too swiftly from one nation to another …”

Five days earlier, with coronavirus spreading rapidly across the nation and new tougher restrictions in the offing, the prime minister admitted “the overall situation is, alas, worse and more challenging than we had hoped when we first set the rules”.

In late November, Johnson told the nation that the tiering system wasn’t really working. “I should warn you now that many more places will be in higher tiers than, alas, was previously the case,” he said. Two weeks before that, on 9 November, “alas”, he said, the death figures were rising fast.

And in his statement to the Commons at the beginning of the month, it was double portions. “When I look at what is happening now amongst some of our continental friends and see doctors who have tested positive being ordered, alas, to work on Covid wards … I can reach only one conclusion: I am not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people.” Getting the R number down was essential to avoid “more hospital admissions and, alas, more fatalities”.

These aren’t the only occasions the prime minister has used the word in recent weeks. And given the bleak news about the spread of the virus, they are unlikely to be the last.


Bradshaw scores government 3 out of 10

[Ben Bradshaw MP was Minister of State for Health from 2007 to 2009 before promotion to Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the last Labour Government. – Owl]

Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter, has a lot to say about how the government has handled the coronavirus pandemic.“Three out of ten. At best, he says. “The actual response to the pandemic has been shambolic, unpredictable, veered all over the place and full of over promising and under delivering.”

Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter 

A former health minister, Mr Bradshaw has called the repeated failure of the government to be ahead of the curve and anticipate events scandalous. He says the buck has to stop with the prime minister who has proven himself to be unqualified for the task.

Mr Bradshaw said alarm bells for him began to ring loudly when he was in Italy in February and saw how they were handling the pandemic.

“There were reports in the media about this mysterious virus before that and I think we were so wrapped up in the aftermath of the general election and Brexit that I think we weren’t as a country we weren’t very quick to realise what was coming to hit us. But if you listened at the time to various medical experts or read journals like the Lancet, then alarm bells might have been ringing earlier.

“Co-incidentally I happened to go to Italy for the February half-term and when we arrived at Catania Airport, we were temperature-checked on arrival, and I thought, that’s interesting, as there was absolutely nothing going on in the UK whatsoever, and of course, we know what happened.

“The first wave hit Italy first in the ski resorts and elsewhere and then spread like wildfire to the rest of Europe and the rest of it is history, so it is extraordinary thinking back a year that the whole of 2020 has been dominated by this dreadful pandemic.”

It was a month later before the UK went into its first lockdown, and Mr Bradshaw said: “There is a general consensus that we were far too slow to act. We went into the first lockdown two or three weeks too late and been well documented that thousands of lives could have been saved had we gone into that lockdown earlier.

“Because I have friends and family in Italy I was watching in horror what was happening with the hospitals filling up and not just old people getting ill and dying, but young otherwise healthy people, and we were still fiddling around in Britain.

“We did get the numbers well down in the summer and I would have thought it would have been unsustainable to have maintained those restrictions throughout the summer given the numbers were coming down, but when they started going up, again it seemed the government did too little, too late.”

Mr Bradshaw says he has raised serious questions of what the £12 billion spent on test and trace has actually been spent on, given the country has been through a second lockdown and could be on the verge of entering a third.

“It’s absolutely scandalous that test and trace is completely failing,” he said. “The tracing element is a disaster. Billions and billions of tax payer’s money has been spent on this privatised system run by a crony of the government with no obvious experience or qualification to do the job.

“It’s done an appalling job and the levels of compliance with self-isolation is incredibly low and they are only tracing a fraction of the people, so we cannot afford another national lockdown before we are rescued from a vaccine but if the government doesn’t do better, then I fear that’s where we are heading.”

Asked why people are not complying with some of the restrictions, and the requirement to self-isolate, he said: “I think there are three reasons for that. One is that people can’t afford to do it as the level of income support is not sufficient for them to survive and feed their families. The second is the loss of trust because of Dominic Cummings – one rule for them and one for the rest of us.

“And the third is because of the government’s obsession with this privatised and centralisation approach using huge national call centres that don’t know local areas instead of using existing public health expertise that we have at local level.

“Where the local government has been doing the tracing, they have had a contact tracing rating of 97 per cent, even going and knocking on people’s doors. You can’t do it all using a centralised telephone system, not least when a lot of people, including me, don’t answer the phone when we get a withheld number or an anonymous number that we don’t recognise, so the whole system has been hampered by the government’s obsession with over centralisation, privatisation and handing out these multi-billion pound contracts to the favourites of ministers.

“Look at how well they dealt with and eradicated the Exeter University spike in September and October. That is a very good example of where the partnership working in Devon has been highly successful as it’s been locally driven. They’ve basically ignored what the government has been saying and have been doing their own thing and much more successfully as a result.

“The secret, the big secret, was the university many months beforehand commissioned their own private testing system so they did not have to rely on the disastrous failing national government one. I think the vice chancellor of the university working with Public Health Devon did a fantastic job, and the students did very well in adhering to the rules.

“It goes back to the terrible habit that the government had all the way through of over promising and under delivering and preferring big, glossy, visual PR projects like the Nightingales, which made great telly for the secretary of state to go and open but didn’t address the real need we had at the time.

“Exeter’s Nightingale is one of the few that has actually been used. Most of them have stood empty. I just hope countless lessons are learnt as a result of this, but very depressing at how poor the government has been at learning the lessons and they have kept repeating the same mistakes.”

Devon has fared far better than other areas of the country, and remains the area in England with the lowest death rate. Only Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, Dorset and Wiltshire have had lower infection rates than Devon throughout the pandemic, and at lower tier level, the South Hams, Torridge, Teignbridge, West Devon and Mid Devon are among the bottom ten areas in England.

Asked why Devon has fared better than some other counties, Mr Bradshaw said there was a number of reasons. He said: “Firstly the nature of Devon as a county. It has tended to be the more peripheral and sparsely populated areas that have done best simply because there aren’t vast numbers of people living on top of each other is cramped conditions moving around.

“Secondly, I think the timing of the measures that were taken benefitted us as after the initial small spike in Torbay of holidaymakers who came back from ski holidays, we had very low numbers in the beginning and our numbers were still low when the first lockdown kicked in and they stayed low, and that has been really helpful for us.

“And we have had superb collaborations between our local authorities, the health service, and our public health officials and they have been in the forefront of doing some of the work on contact tracing long before it was happening elsewhere, and they have been ahead of the problems we have had.”

Asked for a rating of the government’s response out of ten, he said: “I’d give them at the most three. The only thing that has been reasonably successful has been the economic support package but even that has been full of holes with millions of people left without support.

“The actual response to the pandemic has been shambolic, unpredictable, veered all over the place, and the buck has to stop with the PM and he is ultimately in charge and he sets the tone, and I’m afraid its revealed Mr Johnson as someone who is not across the detail and he is not able to take unpopular decisions in the timely manner, which sometimes you have to do as a PM.”

One unpopular decision though that he has taken is the cancellation of Christmas for people living in Tier 4 areas, and the relaxation of the rules from five days to just Christmas Day for the rest of England, but Mr Bradshaw said that changing of Christmas rules have left him never having felt so angry with the prime minister.

He said: “I don’t think I have ever felt so angry with this Prime Minister. He never learns. Always over promising and under delivering. Millions of people were encouraged by him to make plans to see family and friends for Christmas, even though he knew cases were soaring and now all these people’s plans have had to be scrapped.”

Mr Bradshaw “When it is all over, there needs to be a fair and just reckoning between the ages as young people have paid a huge price and have been far more economically and socially impacted and affected by this and will have to the devastating fiscal effects to deal with for the rest of their lives.”

‘Christmas gift’ or ‘bad timing’? Brexit deal greeted with joy and foreboding around world

Britain should be congratulated for coming to a Brexit deal with the EU, but be wary of the very different world they are walking into, international analysts have said.

Helen Davidson 

Outside Europe, politicians, experts, and media took a short break from Christmas and the pandemic to welcome the end of Britain’s long and torturous Brexit process, but there was little in the way of celebration.

In the New York Times, Mark Landler reflected on how much Britain, and the world, had changed since the 2016 vote, when a narrow majority of people were “tempted by an argument that the country would prosper by throwing off the bureaucratic shackles of Brussels”, develop new industries and cut its own trade deals.

But now the world is more protectionist and nationalistic, and vulnerable post-pandemic.

“The world is now dominated by three gargantuan economic blocs – the United States, China and the European Union,” wrote Landler. “Britain has finalised its divorce from one of them, leaving it isolated at a time when the path forward seems more perilous than it once did.”

In that same piece, Thomas Wright, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution cut to the chase: “Becoming a global free trader in 2016 is a bit like turning into a communist in 1989. It’s bad timing.”

In a comprehensive step through of the politics behind history, Linton Besser, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Europe correspondent, predicted Boris Johnson, ever the populist, would swing with the wind on whether the deal was working out.

“The prime minister will continue to trumpet the breakthrough for as long as it’s advantageous to do so,” wrote Besser. “Then, in the not-too-distant future, when electoral profit beckons, he and his allies will find a way, whatever rhetorical contortions are required, to condemn the EU all the same.

The deal will be reprosecuted – perhaps by Johnson himself – in pursuit of another chance to wave a kipper at those pesky Europeans from up on a stage.

“And that’s because Europe has for decades been a very handy straw man for many in the establishment, not least Johnson himself, who paved a path to politics with wildly exaggerated newspaper columns pouring scorn on European cooperation.”

Chinese state media reports on Brexit were viewed more than 140m times on microblogging platform, Weibo, but they did not appear to publish any Chinese-language commentary.

The state-backed tabloid, Global Times, said the deal was “a Christmas gift not only for the British economy but also for the Covid-19-battered global financial market”.

The editorial said the world’s markets were still struggling with the pandemic, and looking for “less chaos”. It commended the British government’s “last ditch efforts” to secure a deal under so much pressure. “There is no denying that a no-deal Brexit would lead to a dramatic change in the life and employment prospects of the Britons,” it said.

In English, Xinhua said that while the deal will “certainly help avoid a Brexit cliff edge”, it was not “a Christmas gift for all”.

Other English-language state media, including CGTN and China Daily, went with an op-ed by former MEP Jonathan Arnott. Arnott wrote that the last-minute nature of the deal – on Christmas eve and a week before deadline – was “breathtaking, though hardly surprising”. “The world is changing,” he said, and how the UK deals with the growing markets of China, India, and South America will be “pivotal”.

“One way or another, it must demonstrate a clear strategy: unless such trading relationships are signed, sealed and delivered, the UK cannot claim to have gained economically from Brexit.”

Japan’s finance minister, Taro Aso, told reporters he welcomed the deal, and “it should be highly valued that a broad agreement was clinched between the two”.

New Zealand’s minister for foreign affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, also congratulated both sides. “We welcome continued stability and continuity,” she tweeted.

A US state department official said the US was committed to negotiating a comprehensive free trade agreement with the UK. “We support the UK in its sovereign decision to depart the EU, and we look forward to continued strong relationships with both the UK and EU,” they said.

The Times of India reported the agreement left “critical parts of the relationship to be worked out later”, and WIO News reported the two parties had “finally agreed” on a deal, and led on reassuring comments by the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen, that the two sides would “stand shoulder to shoulder to deliver on our common global goals”.

However it also reported on economists’ warnings that “leaving the EU’s orbit will still hurt” the world’s current sixth largest economy.

‘If I die, better to die gloriously’: the volunteers catching Covid for science

Alex Greer, a chemistry student, runs the Effective Altruism Society at Durham University. “It’s about using evidence and careful analysis to do the most good in the world,” he says. With this mission in mind he recently received an offer he felt could not refuse: would he allow himself to be infected with Covid-19 in the name of science?

Uplifting altruism in action – Owl

Mr Greer, 20, is one of more than 2,500 Britons who have volunteered to take part in the world’s first coronavirus “human challenge trials”. Due to begin in a London hospital next month, they will involve participants being deliberately exposed to the virus in a secure bio-containment suite.

The aim is to accelerate research by studying, in a way not possible in other settings, how our bodies react to the bug and how well the next generation of vaccines can fend it off.

Dominic Wilkinson, a professor of medical ethics at Oxford University, believes the dangers are acceptable and that volunteering signals “an enormous amount of altruism and maturity”.

The project, led by Imperial College, will initially involve a few dozen 18 to 30-year-olds, free of risk factors such as heart disease or diabetes. For this age group studies put the chances of dying of Covid once you’ve caught it at somewhere in the region of one in 10,000. “It’s the sort of risk that women run of dying in childbirth,” Professor Wilkinson said.

On top of that there is the possibility of “long Covid”, where symptoms linger for weeks or months. “But a lot of people have caught the disease and had no say in it,” Mr Greer said. “Hopefully by giving my informed consent I can help prevent others being blindsided.”

At 66, Paul van den Bosch, a GP who has worked for Médecins Sans Frontières, will not be eligible for the first trials but he hopes that older people, a priority group for vaccines and treatments, will eventually be allowed to take part.

“We’ve become a little bit obsessed by an injunction to stay safe,” he said. “Our lives are finite and it’s not our job to to stay safe all the time. We’re going to die in the end — and if one wants to be romantic about it then, you know, dying gloriously is better than dying of dementia. And from a practical point of view, the risks aren’t huge. They’re much smaller than a lot of the things that people do, like climbing Everest [where about one in a hundred climbers beyond base camp die].”

What does his family think? “I’ve worked overseas in difficult environments and a few years ago I donated a kidney so I’m known as a risk taker.”

Over the past year scientists have developed vaccines at a pace that many doubted was possible, but it still was not fast enough to stop the world being turned upside down by the virus. By providing £34 million for the challenge trials, the UK government is signalling a belief that the process can be accelerated further still.

This seems plausible: the American company Moderna had created a coronavirus jab by February 24, although it took another eight months to show that it worked. This was done by recruiting 30,000 people for a field trial and giving half of them the real vaccine and half a placebo. The scientists had to sit back and wait for infections to strike naturally. It took until mid-November for 95 people to catch the bug, enough to assess with reasonable statistical certainty that it was effective.

Challenge trials offer a shortcut to that process because scientists can observe infections from the moment the pathogen meets its host. By scrutinising every detail from the outset the trials should help to define how the immune system mobilises to fend off the coronavirus, as well as the duration of vaccine-induced immunity and the measurable signs that a person is protected. The first step will involve working out the smallest amount of virus you can expose somebody to and cause an infection. (Volunteers will probably have it dripped into their nose.) This should help to minimise the risk of severe disease.

The Vaccine Task Force, the government body responsible for building stockpiles, has secured the first three challenge trial slots to test new jabs. A second generation of vaccines is likely to be needed, it says, for boosting protection, addressing supply challenges, tackling mutations in the virus and making immunisation campaigns cheaper. It envisages a “fast to fail” approach, where challenge trials quickly sort out the vaccine chaff. If transmission rates are low this may be the only way that the next swathe of inoculations could be tested. The option for large-scale field efficacy studies simply may not exist.

The volunteers are on board with this thinking. Jennifer Wright, 29, a physics PhD student at the University of Glasgow, says she has been motivated by the ability to gather otherwise unobtainable data. She would also like to feel as if she had done her bit. “I’m very sure that I would like to take a risk to help out,” she said. “Some of my friends work for the NHS and they’ve been taking risks all through the pandemic while I’ve been looked after and stayed safe.”

In the spring Seán McPartlin, 22, a philosophy student at Oxford, became involved with 1Day Sooner, the non-profit group through which all the volunteers interviewed here have signed up. It has held discussions with Imperial but the researchers may end up enrolling volunteers through other channels.

Volunteers for the Imperial trial are expected to be paid about £4,000 for a two or three-week stay at the Royal Free Hospital in London and probably about a year of follow-up appointments. Mr McPartlin has been calling would-be participants and says they have not seemed very interested in financial incentives. “They’re committed to the rationale,” he says.

Around the world 1Day Sooner has recruited more than 38,000 challenge volunteers and won the backing of several Nobel winners as well as Adrian Hill, one of the leaders of the Oxford vaccine team. Mr McPartlin has been making sure that the volunteers know what they are letting themselves in for.

“Most had done their due diligence,” he says. “The outstanding questions were practical. What exactly is the quarantine facility going to be like? Will there be wifi?”

Record breaking jabs