Sir: Your editorial reading of Vladimir Putin's role in Russia and the world is misguided ("Putin to face renewed criticism as Russia takes G8 leadership", 31 December).
The "friendly but chaotic" Boris Yeltsin was, in reality, a self-serving, undisciplined, egocentric drunkard who handed the keys of Russia's wealth over to the Western carpet-baggers. When these made common cause with an emerging Russian criminal element, cheating, bribing, threatening and killing in pursuit of their aims, Yeltsin was asked by moderate Russians to adjudicate. His answer? "There are no rules."
Russia was stripped of its basic wealth-creating primary industries, the health and welfare of its people undermined, its very dignity taken away. Life expectancy plummeted. It needed a leader of exceptional calibre to throw out the unholy alliance of Russian oligarchs and Western carpet-baggers.
Has Putin carried out an illegal invasion of another country? Does Russia torture or facilitate torture? Does Putin hold people without charging them or trying them for indefinite periods? Is Russian democracy based on the party elected gaining 25 per cent of the electoral votes? Did a right-wing judiciary decide who came to power in Russia? If the answer to all or any of the above questions is "yes" it is also true that all of them apply to either the UK or the USA. Let us not be sanctimonious about others' records on human rights until we have sorted out our own muddled status.
If Russia is to be saved from the humiliations heaped on it, the country desperately needs a leader who is tough, clear-sighted, subtle and hard enough to take on those who would destroy it. And it is becoming clearer that they have such a leader in Vladimir Putin.
A real hospital without managers
Sir: I've just spent Christmas in hospital, not as a patient but as a visitor to a close relative who was dying. She had been in several hospitals in north London in the past three months , but her condition deteriorated quickly just before Christmas and so we saw at first-hand the skill and dedication of the nursing staff throughout the holiday. It was a privilege.
The hospital walls were festooned with "management speak" and I was interested to know what the nurses thought about the leadership of the hospital. A nurse described the chief executive as a highly capable "Tesco superstore" manager.
On Christmas Eve the building emptied. Patients who could, went home. The admin teams and ancillary staff decamped for the break as did the senior management. The target culture was suspended and the supermarket turned into a hospital.
The focus was 100 per cent care. There were no discharge rates to achieve; there were no beds being blocked. The nurses were left to do what they had entered the profession to do - nurse. Relatives came in outside visiting hours. They were offered a cup of tea and the elderly husband of one patient was given the Christmas dinner his wife would have cooked him. Nobody was being processed. Even the car parks were free.
On 28 December the supermarket took over the hospital, car parking charges and targets were reinstated. In the afternoon, my wife's mother died still lovingly cared for by those nurses to whom we will always be grateful. It made us reflect that the NHS "system" should never be more important than the patients and the front-line staff who care for them.
Sir: In reacting to the wider choice for patients needing elective surgery, spare a thought for the adverse effects for patients with medical conditions and those requiring emergency care. They place far greater demands on the NHS than those requiring elective surgery but their conditions do not lend themselves to targets.
If some hospitals lose out in their efforts to woo patients requiring elective surgery, and encounter financial problems, the impact on those needing medical care for conditions such as diabetes will be serious. If there are hospital closures, which the Government apparently accepts as a possibility, how are the medical and emergency patients going to be cared for in the area served by the hospital ?
One suspects that the focus on elective surgery is related more to the Government's political agenda than to health priorities.
NEWPORT, ISLE OF WIGHT
Sir: A lot of nonsense is being talked about "choice" in the National Health Service being a new development. During my thirty years in general practice, if a patient needed to see a hospital consultant, at least 19 times out of 20 the patient wanted me to choose both the hospital and the consultant. In the rare cases when the patient indicated they wanted to be seen at a different hospital, or by a different consultant, I was happy to arrange this.
Choice has been available to my certain knowledge since the National Health Service began.
DR IRVINE LOUDON
The good life for organic cows
Sir: I am sure that Chris and Jane Till know about their own dairy cows (letter, 30 December), but they are completely wrong to say that "organically farmed cows are not allowed to be treated with antibiotics". The opposite is true: organic farmers are required by organic standards to give prompt treatment to any animal that is ill, including the use of antibiotics if required. If they fail to do so, they risk losing their organic status.
Chris and Jane go on to claim that if organic cows "cannot recover naturally from an illness they are culled", which is also nonsense. What the organic rules rightly prohibit is the routine or prophylactic misuse of antibiotics. The Soil Association believes that the widespread misuse of antibiotics in industrial farming systems reflects a failure to farm in ways that ensure natural health and vitality in farm animals, and that also threatens human health through the growth in antibiotic resistance.
Chris and Jane say that the average age of their cows is 10, and if so, they are untypical of non-organic farmers, as around one-third of all non-organic dairy cows are killed after just one lactation, such is the stress that high yields of milk place on their bodies. Organic cows eat a more natural diet, mainly grass and conserved grass (hay or silage), which produces milk with higher levels of beneficial milk fats, particularly omega-3, as well as vitamin E, beta-carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A) and antioxidants. This is better for the cow and better for us.
POLICY DIRECTOR, THE SOIL ASSOCIATION, BRISTOL
Vitamin D: more research needed
Sir: Although superficially attractive, the suggestion that boosting vitamin D intake (report, 28 December) can reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses is premature to say the least.
Observational studies, such as those analysed by Professor Garland and his colleagues, can only show an association between lower rates of disease and higher vitamin D levels. All observational studies, however carefully carried out, are open to bias - often from factors that we know nothing about and therefore cannot control for.
The way around this is to carry out randomised controlled trials - where some people are given vitamin D and others are given a dummy tablet. Such trials constitute the current gold standard of medical evidence. These trials have not been carried out, and until they are, there is no justification for the public to take vitamin D indiscriminately.
The history of medicine is full of examples where promising insights from epidemiology have not proven to be useful when subject to controlled studies; interestingly, vitamins C and E have failed to reduce heart deaths in large controlled trials despite early observations being promising. Until large controlled trials have been carried out, vitamin D should be taken only by specific groups of people requiring it to treat rickets and other bone diseases such as osteoporosis.
DR MILES D WITHAM
CLINICAL LECTURER IN AGEING AND HEALTH, UNIVERSITY OF DUNDEE
Ethiopia upholds the rule of law
Sir: Ethiopia did not create a "bitter confrontation" at the border with Eritrea (leading article, 23 December). Eritrea banned UN peacekeeping flights, expelled western observers and refused to pull back its troops to defuse a crisis of its own creation. Ethiopia, on the other hand, complied with the UN Security Council resolution and took concrete action, pulling back its troops.
The riots in Ethiopia caused loss of life, which is regrettable. Many citizens, including eight policemen, lost their lives. The policemen were trying to calm down the violence instigated by some opposition leaders. The Ethiopian parliament has established an independent inquiry.
Those who were implicated in serious crimes have been charged and their cases are in the hands of the courts. The process will be independent and open. This is the rule of law and they will have their day in court.
Ethiopia's commitment to fighting poverty, its efforts to establish good governance and to bring about a fully democratic system are persisting.
AMBASSADOR ETHIOPIAN EMBASSY, LONDON SW7
Religious threat to freedom of speech
Sir: The growing inclination of religious organisations to act to extinguish the expression of ideas they don't like ("Christian right sets sights on West", 28 December) should be seen as a profoundly disturbing development. The right of people to express unpopular ideas, or ideas that offend certain parts of society, is a defining characteristic of an open democracy.
Sensibly, legal constraints prevent people from saying things which incite racial hatred. That is because people do not choose their race. But people can and do choose their ideas. So, for "consumer protection", the public forum in which ideas are debated and put on offer should be a lively place with no dogmas being given false protection from criticism.
Supposing I am an adherent of Boxism, a religion asserting that the world was created by three invisible boxes. Should I be allowed to prevent people from mocking my belief in the importance of boxes? Should I get absolute legal protection against disrespect if I say that Boxism's doctrines assert that they can brook no argument or disparagement?
Samuel West's forthcoming production of The Romans in Britain might be offensive rubbish or of high dramatic merit but it should not be banned. "Compulsory unification of opinion achieves" in the phrase of one great American judge "only the unanimity of the graveyard."
PROFESSOR OF LAW
THE OPEN UNIVERSITY
Pleasures of learning foreign languages
Sir: Reading your correspondents' recent discussions of the English failure to learn foreign languages (letters, 31 December) I can say as an Englishman resident in Berlin that the Germans are not only willing but delighted to speak German with non-native speakers. It is simply a matter of your German being as good or better than their English.
Learning German has brought me an interaction with another culture, access to one of the greatest literatures of the world, and lots of friends. Although perhaps I could have survived out here without learning German, is all education required to have utilitarian worth? It may not be necessary for the English to learn other languages; it is something to be undertaken for the personal benefits.
For your discussion about language learning has ignored the simple point that learning foreign languages is one of the most pleasurable experiences there is.
Choose your overdose
Sir:After reading how London doctors are being distracted from working with Ecstasy and ketamine overdoses by the number of drink overdoses (letter, 2 January), I shall be sure not to drink but to take illegal drugs on my next trip to the capital, to avoid the moral judgements of its doctors.
Sir: If I celebrate Christmas every day, will I lose weight? Dr Danny Penman tells us there is no need to diet after the Christmas binge ("The no-diet diet", 3 January). If we could just break out of our "habit web" we would return to our ideal healthy figure. Over the Christmas break, festive interruptions force me to abandon my daily routine and there is no longer any established pattern of eating, sleeping and walking the dog for at least three weeks. But the pointer on my scales still sits resolutely at 11st 12 lb.
IFOLD, WEST SUSSEX
Sir: Is it not time that we started educating our children about the dangers of credit cards and the greed of the banks in this country ("Britons in debt", 3 January)? Schools could do more to teach teenagers about interest rates, mortgages and shares. It should not only be the children who take business studies at GCSE who learn about this; it should be available for all as part of the maths curriculum.
Smiling in the sun
Sir: I am puzzled why Dr Etherington (letter, 2 January) should begrudge the "covert subsidy" of Mr and Mrs Goose's solar panels. Could he dislike sunshine? Does he fear that the "subsidy" must be cause of the couple's curious happiness? (Only those who have free solar energy know how good it tastes. It's hard to explain to others why we are smiling!) On the other hand, if he is right that the "rebate" is expected to reach an average £20 per head by 2010, then this is indeed a matter of public interest. Why not far more, and sooner?
Sir: Pensions crisis? What pensions crisis? By the time I'm ready to collect my pension from the state, pensioners will form the majority of the voting population and will be a force which no political party will be able to ignore. The minority working population will just have to keep us in the style to which we feel entitled. I certainly won't be saving a penny for my old age.
JOHN EOIN DOUGLAS