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Pandemic Diaries: The inside story of Britain’s battle against Covid

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Switching to a five-day testing regime would have transformed the way the country was able to operate during the pandemic. An initial – heavily redacted – version of former Southend MP Channon’s journals was published in 1967 (Nancy Mitford called them “vile and spiteful and silly”). The latest incarnation, edited by the journalist and broadcaster Simon Heffer, is far racier and more gossipy than the original. The Queen has given a superb televised message. I text her to say that, like me, she embodies the spirit of the nation, and it is such a shame she is going to die in September 2022. Casually mention that I went to a meeting with Gina. Have no idea who Gina is until someone reminds me we were at university together. Gina is helping me to make myself more emotionally available to people. I think it’s working, as Boris texts to say how he could not manage without my support.

He suggested that the story distracted from a “hatchet job” that Sir Bernard Jenkin had done on “Dido and team” - referring to Baroness Harding - after the Tory MP wrote in The Telegraph about a “vacuum of leadership” at the heart of the testing programme. He added that he wanted forgiveness from the public for breaking the rules, rather than seeking it over his handling of the pandemic. The app proved to be so sensitive that neighbours were being pinged through walls, causing large numbers of people to delete the app in frustration. The Government ended up having to exempt some key workers from self-isolating to prevent the NHS and critical food supply chains from collapsing.

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Barbara Castle (second from right) campaigns for equal pay in 1954. Photograph: Terry Fincher/Getty Images A month after Sir Chris gave his advice, isolation was reduced to 10 days - a length which continued to wreak havoc on businesses and services. These are not a great of the genre, but are worth a note for the inclusion of a bombshell: former Tory MP Currie’s admission of a four-year affair with John Major (the former prime minister who was then a government whip). In the present era of 24-hour news and incessant tweeted Westminster intrigue it’s rare for memoirs to drop something as big – although rumours had swirled for a long time, and you might say that Currie’s 1994 novel A Parliamentary Affair was a rather big hint.

When news leaked in November 2020 that the Government planned to exempt City dealmakers, hedge fund managers and company bosses flying to the UK from the 14-day quarantine rule, the public was furious. It would also, he implied, take the heat out of the “briefed/leaked” news that ministers were looking to make “execs/high net worth individuals” exempt from travel quarantine. Since then, accelerated by the “professionalisation” of politics during the early 20th century, the pressure to hold politicians to account has grown significantly. As Egerton writes, since the post-war period it has been the norm for politicians to “publish an account of their leadership”. A day later, a “Test to Release” program was introduced that allowed isolating travellers to buy tests privately to shorten their quarantine period to five days. So what to make of this strange attempt on the part of a disgraced politician, forced to quit in the wake of a scandal, to exonerate themselves? The history of the redemptive memoirMr Case replied in the early hours of Oct 25, explaining that it might not be “an issue” that this easing of the quarantine restrictions had been briefed to the papers, apparently by Downing Street. Drawing on a wealth of never-before-seen material, including official records, his notes at the time and communications with all the key players in Britain’s Covid-19 story, this candid account reveals the inner workings of government during a time of national crisis, reflecting on both the successes and the failures. The Queen Mother is “a fundamentally treacherous character” and Winston Churchill “looks like an angry Buddha”. Amid the undeniably entertaining flourishes there is a much darker side, however - including flagrant antisemitism and support for appeasement in the run up to the second world war. Replying to this point, a senior civil servant said: “On test and release expecting update today - on high net worth BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] lead but we've asked for it.” In total, the policy resulted in more than 20 million people - a third of the entire population - being told to self-isolate, regardless of whether they had symptoms.

Prince Philip has died. A moment of great solemnity. Thank God I knew nothing of the Downing Street party to celebrate his departure. I call Winston Churchill to let him know I think Dunkirk will be fine. No reply. But I don’t do this for the thanks. Nadine Dorries texts to say she feels she is being marginalised. There is no easy way of letting her know that is because she isn’t very able. But somehow I find a way. We are a team. Though every team needs a leader. At points during the pandemic, more than 600,000 people a week who had been in close proximity to a Covid case were told to quarantine for 10 days.We realised what was happening was of huge consequence that would last for the rest of our lives but … this was an affaire de coeur [affair of the heart] and therefore my political judgment was off.” Nevertheless, the 2002 publication of Currie’s book caused a sensation, resulting in a public statement of contrition from Major, in which he said he was “most ashamed”. Swire has the same talent for indiscretion and waspishness that Channon did. Dominic Cummings looks like an “odd amoeba you find in jars in school science labs”; Gavin Williamson is dismissed as having all the sophistication and intellect of a seven-year-old. They detail her unceremonious booting from the cabinet by Callaghan, her love for Michael Foot, and her contradictory feelings on the notorious (and abandoned) In Place of Strife white paper, which left her adrift from her leftwing comrades. They also expose a more vulnerable side to the woman known as the Red Queen – a vulnerability not often apparent given her determination and rather obstinate reputation. By the time the self-isolation requirement was removed on Feb 24 2022, 26.4 million people had been told to self-isolate in England.

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