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First the carrot, then the stick. At Monday’s Downing Street press conference, we had Matt Hancock being “Mr Nice Guy” as he begged everyone to stick to the guidelines as the vaccination programme was rolled out. For Tuesday’s we got Priti Patel – the iron fist in a tungsten glove – and Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, to spell out what was in store for those people who insisted on breaking the rules.
Or for some people at any rate. Patel has form for giving a free pass to her mates, as she could never bring herself to criticise Dominic Cummings’s Durham safari back in the spring.
This was the first time the home secretary had been let loose at a No 10 briefing since May last year and it soon became clear why. Because Patel is almost pathologically unable to utter a coherent sentence. Whenever she prefaces a statement with, ‘Let me be clear’ – which she does with monotonous regularity – you can be certain she’s going to be anything but.
Still, she did get through her opening scripted remarks almost unscathed – if through gritted teeth – as she was forced to admit that most people were observing the rules properly.
This was clearly a disappointment. In Priti world, everyone – especially immigrants – is a potential law breaker and people should be issued with fixed penalty notices just for thinking of breaking the rules.
The trouble started with the first question from Ian, a member of the public, who wanted to know why the rules for the third lockdown were less onerous than they had been for the first, when the government’s own scientists had identified that the new coronavirus variant was far more infectious.
“Let me be clear,” she said. This was not about the rules now being more relaxed. Even though that was precisely what it was about, as the rules are demonstrably less draconian this time round.
Priti umm-ed and ahh-ed, talked nonsense for a bit and left everyone even more confused. The rules were extremely clear. Everyone was to stay at home and act as if they had the coronavirus apart from the occasions on which they would be allowed out.
And when they did go out, they should either stay close to their front door or remain local. Whichever was nearer to the front door or more local. It depended on the circumstances and whether it was “outdoor recreation”.
Not surprisingly, this mess of an answer was followed up by the same question from a journalist working for ITV and was responded to with a similar word salad. With Patel, the words on their own can occasionally make sense: the trouble starts when she tries to put them in any kind of order.
Hewitt tried to come to her rescue, suggesting: “People should ask themselves, ‘Is going out to do this essential?’ and ‘Am I doing it in the safest way?’”
Which didn’t exactly help matters, as Patel’s prime mission was to avoid dobbing in the prime minister for his weekend bike ride at the Olympic Park. Even two days later, no one at No 10 seems any clearer if Boris headed out on his own from Westminster or went by car to Stratford with a police escort and only started cycling once he was there.
Nor are we any the wiser why he chose the Olympic Park as his bike ride of choice, given that he reportedly noted after getting there how busy it was.
At this point, even the not very sharp Patel could tell that the key message she had been sent out to communicate – that the rules were clear and people should use their common sense to work within them – was beginning to fall apart.
Especially when the Guardian’s Rajeev Syal posed the question that many people had been asking themselves all day. How come two women in Derbyshire had been fined for driving five miles to walk around a reservoir, when Johnson had been aided and abetted to travel seven miles for his bike ride?
“The police have been brilliant,” Patel said, before contradicting herself and admitting they had made a mistake with the two Derbyshire women, who had their fines rescinded when the police realised any journey within seven miles was more or less permissible.
Exercise was vital to people’s health and wellbeing, she continued. And that also applied to exercise. Or something like that. By now the only thing that was clear was that Patel had been the wrong person to send out to promote a strong law-and-order message two days after the PM had done his best to muddy the waters about what the rules actually were.
Predictably with Priti Vacant, the entire press conference ended in confusion when she once again repeated that the rules were tough enough and clear to everyone but that the government was actively looking at making them even tougher and more clear. For the punters, if not for the prime minister.
Hewitt again did his best to save the day by saying that the police would continue to enforce the rules properly, but ideally people would save themselves and his coppers a world of pain by following not just the letter but the spirit of the rules.
After all, his men and women had other crimes they would rather be investigating. Such as how a government department could dole out free school meal contracts at £30 a pop to a company that was only sending out meals that appeared to be worth about a fiver.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Since we’ve had the carrot, it’s time for Patel to bring the stick | Politics