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Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance must be wondering why they had gone to so much trouble the previous day to explain just how critical the coronavirus rates of infection had become and that the threat had now risen back to level four. For after a few token nods to the gravity of the situation – “a stitch in time saves nine” – Boris Johnson used his Commons statement to introduce a few minor tweaks to lockdown restrictions that rather suggested he wasn’t too bothered.
He wanted schools, colleges, universities and businesses to remain open – with the one proviso that all those he had previously threatened with the sack if they didn’t go back to work were now advised to work from home if at all possible. His biggest change was that pubs, restaurants and bars should now all close at 10pm – it has apparently been proved that the coronavirus is mainly a nocturnal creature and is most contagious after dark – though people were obviously free to go home in groups of six, get totally hammered and infect one another afterwards.
Like most Johnson statements it felt rather as if it had been written on the fly. By a committee of his left and right brain, with little synaptic contact between the two. There were few attempts to explain the situation carefully and carry the country with him. Just a load of off the cuff measures – mandatory face masks for shop and hospitality workers etc – and the threat of stricter measures to come if people didn’t comply or the restrictions proved ineffective.
This time he was really, really serious, he said, trying not to smirk. He understood that, unlike the Hun, we Brits were too freedom loving to comply with every law – nothing to do with the government’s mixed messaging obviously – but there were limits. There was nothing the public liked less than one law for the powerful and another for everyone else, so unless it involved driving up to Durham for eye tests it was time to rein in our libertarian instincts.
These restrictions could last for up to six months, Boris added. Which immediately raised eyebrows on both sides of the Commons. Because the prime minister’s idea of time rarely coincides with anyone else’s. It was Boris who had initially said the worst of the pandemic would be over in 12 weeks. It was Boris who had said we should be back to normal by Christmas. Now he was saying we were in for another half-year. Which probably meant that you could probably double it. Maybe he was thinking of Christmas 2021.
The pandemic has highlighted the stark difference between Boristime and Coronatime. Because he is unable to treat the country as grown ups and can’t handle being the bearer of bad news, Boris invariably shortens any given Covid time frame. Years become months, months become weeks. Meanwhile Coronatime has the last laugh of turning each of his strategies from months into weeks and weeks into days. You sometimes can’t even tell if one of his promises is going to last till the end of a sentence.
If Keir Starmer was put out that his powerful virtual conference speech had been all but forgotten by lunchtime he showed no sign of it. Rather he maintained his familiar tactic of broadly supporting the government’s new measures, before pointing out some of their more obvious shortcomings. Were there any signs that localised lockdowns were proving effective? What financial support was he planning to offer for jobs and businesses affected by the new restrictions? And whatever had happened to the world-beating test, track and trace system that everyone had agreed was essential to containing the virus?
These themes were all expanded upon by opposition MPs and Johnson did his best to respond without either losing his temper – he still struggles to deal with even the mildest form of criticism – or giving any proper answers, other than promising that he would be putting his arms around the country. He was also genuinely confused when the SNP’s Hannah Bardell asked why he should expect people to obey the law when his own government was planning on breaking international law with its internal markets Brexit bill. Umm, they should because they should was the best he could offer.
Mostly, though, Boris’s concentration was focused on keeping his own backbenchers happy, as half of them want to avoid any further restrictions to keep the economy open and half have genuine concerns that the party will not be forgiven if the death toll in the second wave matches or exceeds that of the first one. And by and large he succeeded in treading an uneasy balance between being too bullish and too pragmatic. Up until the end, that is. Then his natural enthusiasm got the better of him. The ludicrous £100bn “Operation Moonshot” was still on course and with any luck everything would be fine within a matter of a few months.
We were back on Boristime. Though not for long, as moments after he had finished speaking Nicola Sturgeon made her own statement to the Scottish parliament. Where Boris had sounded somewhat rambling and, at times, contradictory, in his statement, Nicola was a model of clarity and precision. She has a clear grasp of her priorities and sticks to them. She had listened to the advice of Whitty and Vallance and concluded it was necessary to go a lot further than England. In Scotland the “rule of six” was a goner, and there would be no unnecessary socialising between families indoors for the foreseeable future.
With Northern Ireland having already reached a similar conclusion, that left Boris as something of an outlier. Already people were taking bets that his new restrictions would have to be updated within a week. In the battle between Boristime and Coronatime, there’s so far only ever been one winner.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: It’s Boristime v Coronatime, and there’s only ever one winner | John Crace | Politics