You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.
In the classic coming of age movie, Dead Poets Society, students pay tribute to their inspirational teacher by standing on their desks and proclaiming “O Captain! My Captain!” The heartfelt phrase, from Walt Whitman’s poem in honour of the late Abraham Lincoln, went poignantly viral years later as Robin Williams fans mourned the actor’s death.
The passing of Captain Sir Tom Moore, whose simple heroism was an inspiration to all ages in the UK, will have similarly touched many millions today. The old captain, our captain, captured the nation’s hearts with that incredible charity walk ahead of his 100th birthday. Just as we beamed with sheer joy at that unifying act of altruism, many of us will have shed a tear at the death of this extraordinary man.
For Tom Moore, “seize the day!” meant a small act of fundraising in his back garden (“for the sake of the nurses and the NHS” as he put it) that snowballed into a massive outpouring of national solidarity and goodwill. Amid the fog of the first lockdown, he was indeed a beacon of light.
But the former World War Two veteran was also a magnificent, living riposte to all those who believed the response to coronavirus was some kind of a “herd immunity” policy, one that would treat the old as sadly but inevitably dispensable.
His Zimmer frame became as much a weapon of defiance against ageism as it was against the unreason and lack of compassion that has all-too frequently marked a shouty minority over the past year. Only today, one Covidiot harassed chief medical officer Chris Whitty with claims that he was a “liar” about deaths from the virus.
Captain Tom fell ill with pneumonia recently and caught coronavirus last week, and thus will be classed as one more awful “excess death” in this pandemic. As it happens, we learned today that the number of such deaths in the UK has gone above 100,000, yet another grim milestone in the many different metrics so far.
An extra 104,520 people have died since March 2020, and there have been six deaths for every five people who would be expected to die in an average year. It was only last spring that Whitty and Patrick Vallance talked about “excess deaths” being the true measure of the impact of the virus, as it takes in all the indirect as well as direct fatalities. They clearly didn’t anticipate the sheer scale of that number.
Sadly, Captain Tom’s pneumonia meant he couldn’t get the vaccine that has become as much of a beacon of hope for 2021 as he was for 2020. But he would be proud of the huge success his country has had in getting nearly 10 million of his fellow pensioners jabbed.
We can assume too that he would also have been delighted by the really encouraging news on vaccines research. Oxford University’s new study found protection of 76% during the 12-week interval until the AstraZeneca second dose.
Perhaps most significantly of all, the study found the AstraZeneca vaccine could cut transmission of the virus by 67%. We won’t get figures on the Pfizer impact on transmission until the spring (the UK is the biggest lab test for it), but if there is anything like that impact, we can dare to believe the vaccines not only spare people from death and hospitalisation but help curb the spread of the virus too.
The first concrete evidence on transmission may well encourage Boris Johnson to ease restrictions in coming weeks. It won’t be plain sailing, of course. There remain real problems with the new variants of the virus, not least the scary finding that the Kent version is mutating into its more vaccine-resistant South African equivalent.
Yet as the falling death numbers finally join the drop in hospitalisations and (more dramatically) in cases, it’s clear the lockdown is working. News that more vaccines are coming on stream, and that they can finally give us another way of breaking the chain of transmission, are all such welcome developments in this dark February.
The light is slowly coming back into our lives, literally and metaphorically. It’s truly tragic that Captain Tom isn’t here to see it. But his legacy won’t just be the £32m for NHS charities that will make a real difference, week in week, out to people’s lives. His bigger gift has been to show us we really ought to all be in this together.