Derek Draper: A vigorous person who should be remembered for so much more than his suffering

The abiding image most of the public have of Draper – the beloved husband of Kate Garraway – is of someone struggling incredibly hard against his frailty. Here, Sean O’Grady reflects on the career of a man who had a front-row seat for the New Labour project

Friday 05 January 2024 17:28 GMT
Derek Draper at the Hay Festival, 2009
Derek Draper at the Hay Festival, 2009 (Shutterstock)

Even for those who knew Derek Draper only very slightly, the news of his passing is immensely sad. Because of his public profile and the celebrity of his wife Kate Garraway, the suffering he experienced as a result of long Covid was inevitably very much in the public eye. The abiding image most of the public have of him is of a man struggling incredibly hard against his frailty, rather than the vigorous person he was before he was so unluckily struck down by the coronavirus. That should not be the lasting impression of a man who lived a full life. Had things turned out a little differently, he could easily have scaled the heights of political office.

When I came across Draper, he was in his pomp. He was a young man working with Peter Mandelson in the New Labour project, during and after the 1997 election landslide – lively company, dedicated, thoughtful, and obviously gifted with a high level of what you might call “political intelligence”.

At Manchester University he had developed a taste, and some facility, for the kind of internecine warfare that passes for student politics. However, he wasn’t that typical a Labour activist from around that era, having always been on the right of the party – a social democrat by nature rather than a Corbynesque socialist as such – and was therefore someone who fell easily into the New Labour orbit, weary of press and hungry for power. He had the same soft Cheshire (Chorley) accent throughout his life, and it bore witness to the fact that he enjoyed no special advantage beyond his own notable qualities.

Draper, always magnetically attracted to power, was at the centre of the courtly world of New Labour at a time when Tony Blair blazed across the firmament like a sun king, and when anyone associated with him and his incoming administration, as Draper was, carried with them an air of power and influence. Draper, never shy, wrote an insider’s account of the early days of the government – Blair’s Hundred Days – and was soon enough right in the thick of it, although by that point as a well-connected lobbyist.

He was caught, rather unfairly, in a media sting, “a lobbying scandal”, in which he bragged: “There are 17 people who count in this government, and to say I am intimate with all of them is the understatement of the century.” As it happens, that was more or less true, and Draper insisted he’d done nothing wrong, which was also correct in the sense that it was more a newspaper story derived from folly and entrapment rather than an actual case of corruption.

That said, Draper was always a bit cocky, a little cheeky, and never underestimated himself; he conceded that he did have “a big mouth”. A decade later he was back in politics, before another, more serious, scandal engulfed him, and he devoted himself fully to his work as a psychotherapist and to his happy family life with his increasingly famous partner.

Draper was struck down by the coronavirus right at the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020 – before we called the disease caused by the virus “Covid”, before we understood much about it, and long before we became familiar with the phenomenon of long Covid and its many and variable complications. Derek’s illness was very much played out in the public sphere – with his wife’s tearful updates on television, the well-wishes from hosts and public alike, and the newspaper articles and books chronicling the family’s unbearable hopes, disappointments and traumas. Derek’s plight, and that of his loved ones, at a time of national sorrow, spoke to many who only knew him because of his trials.

In that context, it would be something of lasting value to wider society if the passing of Draper in such circumstances raised awareness of long Covid, which far too many people still refuse to accept is a “real” illness. The latter years of Draper’s life prove just how callous and mistaken that view is. Quite aside from the lingering human misery it causes, it continues to inflict grievous damage on the economy. A survey last month showed that some 98 per cent of long Covid sufferers said the condition had limited their ability to work, three-quarters had needed to cut back or change their work, and a fifth had ceased work altogether.

Draper pictured with his wife, TV presenter Kate Garraway
Draper pictured with his wife, TV presenter Kate Garraway (Lorraine/ITV)

Long Covid can cause extreme complications, such as those Draper had to live with, as well as a wide range of symptoms ranging from fatigue, pain and heart palpitations to insomnia and brain fog. All can last for many months and indeed years after the initial infection – and no one knows quite how long they will persist. Far too little is known about suitable therapies and treatments. The Office for National Statistics says that about 2 million people report long Covid symptoms nationally, about one in 30 of the population.

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And yet we pretend that the pandemic is over, and that Covid and long Covid are things that happened to other people in the past. The brutal truth is that Covid is very much still around, the virus is constantly mutating, and the pandemic is far from over – and hospital admissions are rising. This wilful ignorance must be why medical breakthroughs in long Covid are so rare.

As the death of Derek Draper and the grief of his family should remind us, long Covid is an especially cruel disease, and one that we should be far more concerned about – from taking precautions in the higher-risk winter season, and getting booster jabs, to encouraging workplaces, hospitals and schools to fit efficient filtration systems to slow the progress of this potentially fatal disease. We need more research into long Covid, less anti-vax propaganda, and an end to the unhinged conspiracy theories about the condition being a hoax.

A charitable foundation in Draper’s name, dedicated to the study and relief of long Covid, would be a fitting monument to him. It would be an understatement to say that Derek Draper would have had some bright ideas about who to call and what to do about all that...

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