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At the Downing Street press conference on Wednesday night, the prime minister had assured the nation that Matt Hancock would be giving an update on the government’s plan for hotel quarantine the following day. Only, come Thursday, it turned out there still was no plan. Or not one that the health secretary wanted to share with the rest of us. Boris Johnson had made a mistake – no one could accuse him of not being consistent, at least – and had confused wishful thinking for government policy. So the hotel plan the government had been talking about as if it existed for the past 10 days or so had been shelved until at least much later in the day.
But Westminster abhors a vacuum, so in Hancock’s place we had to make do with a coronavirus update from the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi. Safe to say, this was a statement eagerly awaited by almost no one. Even in these Covid times, I have never seen the Commons quite so empty. Zahawi was literally the only MP present on the government benches; by comparison, the opposition benches were rammed with just three MPs, one of whom was the shadow public health minister, Alex Norris. We can’t be far away from the time when an entire session takes place remotely.
Not that Zahawi seemed too bothered by the absence of a live audience. Partly because he was as aware as anyone that he didn’t really have anything much to say, but mostly because he is enjoying himself far too much. It’s fair to say the vaccines minister is living his best life. When Zahawi was first appointed to his new job, he probably feared the worst: that he would lurch from one piece of crisis management to the next, forced to come up with ever more fanciful reasons for the government having failed to meet its vaccination targets.
Instead, the minister finds himself riding a wave of goodwill and getting the credit for something over which he has had little control. It was Kate Bingham’s taskforce that was responsible for identifying and buying different vaccines, and it has been the NHS, with help from the armed forces, pharmacies and volunteers, that has been responsible for administering the vaccination programme. Nothing has been outsourced to Serco to bugger things up, so all Zahawi really has to do each day is hope that the vaccine supply remains more or less steady and to watch the numbers of people vaccinated skip past the 10 million mark. For the time being at least, he is the minister with the golden touch.
To his credit, Zahawi does seem to recognise his good fortune. There are countless MPs deluded enough to imagine that the success of the initial rollout was all their own work, but the minister was happy to share the love as he rattled off statistics – 90% of over-75s vaccinated, etc – that were already public knowledge. This was a tremendous joint effort, he said, but we mustn’t be complacent. Infection levels were still extremely high and though he would continue to roll out the programme as fast as possible, we wouldn’t be totally safe until the whole world had been immunised. He’d like to teach the world to sing.
Norris raced through his reply, as if aware of the pointlessness of his situation. By almost every measure the government had – whether by luck or by judgment – finally got something right in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, and all he could really do was offer his support and congratulations – a rare occurrence for a shadow minister in Westminster. He did gently inquire whether key workers might be bumped up the pecking order, but seemed more than satisfied with Zahawi’s reply that the tiers had been decided by the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation – again nothing to do with him – to target the 99% of the country most at risk of death. That’s a tough statistic to argue against.
And that was about as hard as things got for Zahawi. He was able to tell Jeremy Hunt, via videolink, and Labour’s Kerry McCarthy that the vaccine would be effective against most known variants and that teams of scientists were working round the clock to combat different mutations. Some MPs just wanted to make sure their constituencies weren’t being left behind in the great, triumphant rollout – it was enough for Zahawi to bestow his blessing – and even the trickier lockdown sceptics of the Covid Recovery Group seemed unwilling to make waves and were content with reassurances that things would be back to normal as soon as possible.
Hancock never gets off that lightly. But then, the health secretary does not have the aura of the chosen one. This is Zahawi’s time. Some men are born lucky, others achieve luck, and others have luck thrust upon them. What could have been a poisoned chalice has turned out to be the high point of his career to date and he looks determined to enjoy every second while it lasts. And why not? Things are unlikely ever to get much better.
Source: The Guardian
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