The Spectator's Notes

The truth about the vaccine ‘postcode lottery’

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

23 January 2021

9:00 AM

‘Postcode lottery!’ people scream when one area feels less well treated than another in a public service — in this case, the rollout of the Covid vaccines. It is a silly phrase, if you believe in the devolution of power and the importance of locality. The point of local health trusts, councils and so on is to let local people run most of the things that matter to them. The logical result is that — even within a national set-up like the NHS — there will be differences. If there were no differences, it would not follow that everyone was getting the same high-quality service. It would much more likely show that the service was uniformly bad, because all convoys, to remain in convoy, must go at the speed of the slowest. Visible difference is a spur to improvement. In the case of the vaccine, however, one cannot help noticing that most of the good-news vaccine stories are coming from the north of England. Is that a ‘lottery’, or is some ‘levelling up’ involved from a central government obsessed with retaining a Tory ‘Red Wall’?

A doctor friend in a hospital currently crowded with Covid cases sends me these poignant words: ‘Sadly a few of our patients this past week have been colleagues. There is something unreal about treating someone who is supposed to be “one of us” but is now a patient. You can’t look at them the same and you can’t have the same level of detachment. They should be wearing scrubs, not a gown. They should be bright and joking, not grey and scared. It feels like a strange dream where a child is driving a car and everyone else acts like it’s normal.’

Netflix is about to release The Dig, a drama based on John Preston’s novel about the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon treasure just before the war. My wife is related to Edith Pretty, who owned the Sutton Hoo estate and ordered its excavation. It is rather pleasing for the family to have Edith, who was in her mid-fifties when the digging started, acted by the beautiful Carey Mulligan, who is 35. The story among Prettys (not told in the film) is that it was Edith’s interest in the spirit world which first inspired her to investigate Sutton Hoo. She shared with Basil Brown, the local archaeologist, whose services she engaged, the fashionable pre-war interest in table-tapping. She frequently sought to reach her dead husband Frank by these means. But, as the family tease went, ‘whenever she tried to find Frank, she got put through to Ernest [who was Frank’s brother]’. One night, she had a vision of men in armour walking upon the burial mounds. After that, Brown started digging.

The Prince of Wales’s ‘Sustainable Market Initiative’ launched last week is called Terra Carta. I can no longer restrain my inner pedant, and feel forced to point out that, since the word terrais a noun, whereas magna is an adjective, Terra Carta is not, as the title implies, grammatically the same as Magna Carta. If this is a charter of the earth, it should carry the genitive and therefore be called Terrae Carta or (which would spoil the echo of Magna Carta) Carta Terrae, like Mappa Mundi. Online, I find, Chinese whispers have already converted it to Terra Carter. HRH’s scheme is not on terra firma.

Anyway, the comparison is intended to show, according to the Initiative, that just as Magna Carta was inspired by ‘a belief in the fundamental rights and liberties of people over 800 years ago’, so Terra Carta ‘aims to reunite people and planet, by giving fundamental rights and value to nature’. There are those, of course, who argue that Magna Carta was not really a power-to-the-people agreement, but a power-grab by the barons of the 13th century. As 1066 And All That puts it, Magna Charter (thus spelt) decreed that ‘everyone should be free, except the peasants’ and that ‘the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand’. In respect of high-handed attitudes to the needs of the common people, there might well be a continuity between the two charters.

As a 21st-century baron, I am pleased to receive the chatty emails which the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, sends to all of us. In his latest, however, while explaining how much he approves of the Freedom of Information Act in general, he protests at the frivolity of a recent FOI request for information about government expenditure on biscuits — ‘Not just total expenditure, but figures broken down into spending on different types of biscuit from Jaffa Cakes to custard creams,’ he complains. I must respectfully take the opposite view to that of the Lord Speaker. I have serious doubts about FOI in general, but am strongly interested in who spends how much public money on what biscuits. I am afraid prejudice operates here: I would much rather work with someone who ordered, say, plain digestives or ginger nuts than with devotees of custard creams.

Recently the history of art department at the University of York sent out an email about its forthcoming PhD conference, called ‘Sensorial Fixations: Orality, Aurality, Opticality and Hapticity’. It reads: ‘It has been brought to our attention that our strong commitment to nonwhite art and experiences in this conference was marred by our choice of visually representing the conference with an image representing the Japanese topos of the three wise monkeys… Upon reflection, we strongly believe that our first poster is not appropriate, as its iconology promulgates a long-standing visual legacy of oppression and exploits racist stereotypes… we have decided to change the image… We bring this to your attention, so that we may be held accountable for our actions and, in our privileges, do and be better.’ Even the woke can be caught napping.

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