London: No mean city
A few days in London last week, visiting family and friends. Two long walks through the centre of the city made me realise that I am increasingly seeing it as a tourist. The first was one of the nicest London walks I know: from Waterloo station along the South Bank to the Millennium Bridge, and then across to St Paul’s and on to Leadenhall Market in the City. Normally I would walk back via Fleet Street and the Strand, but it was cold and I was knackered so I took the tube back to Charing Cross and strolled over the railway bridge to Waterloo.
The second walk, from Victoria station, took me through St James’s Park, Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square to Soho.
The purpose of this second walk was a rendezvous with friends at the Photographers’ Gallery in Ramillies Street to see the Helen Levitt exhibition. This was an impressive display, but in the end I got museum fatigue. There were just too many images, many of them very similar. I thought the Vivian Maier exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg, though smaller, was much more effective. A very nice lunch afterwards at the Wigmore in Langham Place, as recommended by Jay Rayner in The Observer.
The rest of my time was a wonderful hectic blur. There was fish and chips and bangers and mash. There was an ocean of bitter beer and a lake of Laphroaig whisky. The gastronomic highlight was probably the enormous toasted cheese sandwich at the Wigmore (‘a foot long, but only if you have size 24 feet’, according to Mr Rayner).
While in London, I was struck again by the number of people not wearing masks in public. On trains on London Underground there were regular recorded messages saying you must wear masks in trains and stations, but the enforcement of this is non-existent. It seemed strange to go into a pub and not be asked for my pass sanitaire (health pass). Marks and Spencer’s, like most major stores, recommends that you wear masks, but again it is optional, at least in England. It is now compulsory in Scotland and Wales.
For some time now in France, the pass has been required in order to visit bars and restaurants, cinemas and sports grounds, and all other places of entertainment. They are compulsory if you work in the health sector or public services, and you need one if you travel by intercity train or aeroplane or go shopping in a mall. The pass proves that you have received both doses of the vaccine or are protected from Covid by other means. There have been angry protests throughout France, but 75 per cent of the population now carry one, a higher percentage than in any other European country.
Generally speaking, the passes have proved very effective, and this has done much to quieten down the protests. There was no post-holiday surge this autumn in France, and the numbers of cases and deaths from July to mid-October have been significantly lower than in the UK. Since then, however, the daily infection rate has risen rapidly, not just in France but across Europe.
While I was in London, President Macron appeared again on television in France. The 27-minute broadcast from the Elysée Palace was the president’s ninth since the onset of the Covid pandemic. Someone, I forget who, has described his tone in these broadcasts as that of a kindly family solicitor imparting bad news with regretful directness. This time, the president’s message was clear: ‘Get vaccinated to live normally’.
France had anticipated the so-called fifth wave by offering boosters – the third vaccination – to over-65s and those in other vulnerable categories. The take-up has been slow. Only a third of those eligible had booked appointments by the time of the president’s latest broadcast.
It was clearly time to up the ante. M. Macron did this. From December 15, people in the eligible group will need to show the third injection on their pass sanitaire or it will become invalid. No third injection will effectively mean getting locked down.
On Thursday this week there was a follow-up government announcement: the booster injection will now be offered to all adults from five months after their second injection, and from January 15 booster doses will gradually become a compulsory part of all adult health passes. After this date, any adult who has not received their booster seven months after their final dose will see their pass expire. This gives people two months after they become eligible for the booster to go for their extra injection. The health pass app will also be adapted to include an alert system warning someone when they are reaching their booster-dose deadline.
In a further ratcheting-up of pressure, PCR and antigen tests will only be valid health pass proof for 24 hours. Test results can currently be used to create a health pass valid for 72 hours, but the recent rise in case numbers has pushed the government to tighten the time frame. This change will come into force on Monday (November 29). I think these are sensible tactics by the government. Slowly but surely, without being legally compulsory, getting inoculated will be the only way to avoid lockdown
More by luck than judgement, I had booked my booster jab on Tuesday a couple of days before the new regulations were announced. Since then, all the local centres have been flooded with calls, and Madame will have to travel to Montmorillon, over thirty miles away, in a week’s time. However, she’s not complaining. Before the announcement, she was looking at waiting until January before she would be eligible.
Things I’ve learnt this week:
Heinz baked beans were first sold in Britain at Fortnum & Mason as an exclusive luxury imported from America.
There are only two mentions of sneezing in the Bible.
At the end of Roman mime plays, audiences could demand that the female lead strip on stage.
Stop press: The UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid has announced today that face masks will be compulsory in shops and on public transport in England from Tuesday in response to the new Omicron variant. This seems sensible, but I don’t envy the London Underground staff whose job it will be to police it.