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For months now, Matt Hancock has looked a beaten man every time he is forced to front a Downing Street coronavirus press conference – someone who knows the government has made a series of catastrophic mistakes in its handling of the pandemic and is fairly sure he is liable to be made the scapegoat when the reckoning comes.
But on Monday, the health secretary was almost back to his pre-Covid self. Maybe not the full-on Tigger but a long way from the Door Matt he has become over the last half year. The change was subtle but it was noticeable – particularly in his use of language. Out had gone the continuous, monotone defeatism and back had come the occasional drift into the upbeat patter of a junior account manager at a PR agency. He and the UK were “powering ahead” together.
Just for once, Hancock had some relatively good news to tell. Not only in the rates of infections falling but in nearly a million vaccinations having been given over the past weekend, bringing the total of people to have had their first jab up to 9.2 million. It was also looking more than likely that the government would actually keep its promise of immunising everyone in the top four priority groups by 15 February.
No one could quite tell who was most surprised by that: Matt or the rest of the country. Up till now, the only thing the UK had been “world-beating” in was the number of deaths. Now – to everyone’s, especially Boris Johnson’s, surprise – the UK appeared to be showing the rest of the world how to run a vaccination programme.
Matt was feeling so good about himself and all the vaccinations – past, present and future – the UK had been able to acquire that he didn’t even feel the need to get much of a dig in at the EU’s article 16 brain fade that had assumed that Pfizer BioNTech were going to be operating a major smuggling route along the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland.
Rather he merely congratulated himself again for having taken the necessary steps to protect everyone in the UK, while reminding everyone that the fight against the pandemic was a global effort in which we were playing a leading role and we would extend our largesse as and when.
The only slightly tricky moment came with the news that of the 105 people with the South African variant, 11 had acquired the infection within the community. But somehow Hancock almost managed to spin this into a good news story by observing that if it hadn’t been for the UK’s genomic sequencing capacity, there was a fair chance that the rest of the world would yet to have realised that that the mutation had taken place. So the fact that these variants were popping up in the UK was just a sign of how far ahead of the game we really were.
Not everyone was as convinced by the health secretary’s chipper demeanour as Hancock himself seemed to be. The questions ranged from whether the government ought to be taking more draconian measures to clamp down on the South African variant, whether the “second shot” supplies of the Pfizer BioNTech could be guaranteed and whether the vaccine was being fairly distributed across the country.
But Matt was adamantly Panglossian. All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Yes, the pandemic had taken a terrible toll but now was not the moment to be concentrating on all the things that the UK had screwed up over the past 10 months, such as being too slow to lock down, the failure of track and trace and a failure to follow the scientific advice.
Rather we should be celebrating – cautiously, he added – the fact that we had vaccinated more people than anyone else. Not least, because that we had done so had come as much as a surprise to him as it had the rest of the country. When Boris had said that the most vulnerable 15 million people would be immunised by the middle of February, Matt had quite naturally assumed that this was yet another prime ministerial promise that was bound to be broken. But now it was looking like a decent bet.
As with most of Hancock’s press briefings, there were moments of confusion. At one moment he said there was more than enough vaccine to go round while minutes later he admitted the supply was bumpy. And neither he, nor the two scientists alongside him, seemed to agree on just how effective the vaccine was on the new variants or why unpaid carers were in a lower tier to paid ones.
But for Matt, these were incidental details. Yes, things were still terrible, but it had felt like an age since he hadn’t had to explain yet another government fuck-up. “See you again soon,” he said breezily, as he brought the presser to a close, amazed that it had passed off so positively. Happy days, though God knows, there was bound to be more bad news coming his way before long. So he was going to enjoy this moment while he could. Call it respite care.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Hancock as surprised as anyone to find himself bearer of good news | Coronavirus