There may be a Covid crisis but Westminster still finds time to waste | John Crace | Politics

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You might have thought the Commons would have wanted to debate the growing number of university students who appear to have been banged up in self-isolation within hours of arriving at their halls of residence. To many of us it looks as if the students have effectively been taken hostage so the universities can trouser their tuition and accommodation fees.

Nor does the government seem to have a clue what to do about the situation. Only in the morning, junior health minister Helen Whately – an MP who makes Inspector Clouseau look like Sherlock Holmes – had indicated that students could well still be locked up over Christmas; hours later Boris Johnson appeared to have unilaterally granted a festive amnesty. Neither appeared to have a clue about the epidemiology.

But the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, had decided he was a bit busy – make that unprepared – to make a ministerial statement and wondered whether it could possibly wait until Tuesday, by which time his department might have some implausible defence ready. And the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, had declined to force Private Pike to answer an urgent question on the matter, so instead the Commons chose to have a rather pointless general debate on the coronavirus, on which there was no vote and almost nothing was added to the sum of human knowledge. Hard to imagine, I know, but in the middle of the greatest health crisis for a century, parliament can still find opportunities to waste time.

So it was left to Matt Hancock to do the honours of making his customary Monday afternoon appearance and lead off the non-debate with the controversial observation that Covid was a bit of a problem. Sure enough, within minutes Door Matt found himself taking interventions from those Tory MPs who are planning to vote against the government’s reluctance to submit itself to parliamentary scrutiny in Wednesday’s rather more meaningful debate.

First Edward Leigh, quickly followed by Mark Harper, Steve Baker and Chris Grayling all interrupted to point out that the government was imposing draconian restrictions on the entire population without allowing men of their brilliance an opportunity to stop them.

The health secretary did his best to reassure them he had only the best interests of the country at heart. Matt had given MPs at least eight days to digest the main bullet points of the latest measures that had been leaked to the media, and if the 12 pages of fine legal detail had only been published hours before the restrictions became law, then it was just one of those things.

The thing was, Door Matt insisted, there were times when the government just had to move faster than parliament. The irony of him saying this on a day when everyone in Westminster was more or less wasting their time was lost on him. As was the fact that generally speaking not even the cabinet can agree the right balance between halting the spread of the virus and keeping the economy going. It may not be able to organise a piss up in a brewery but it can organise one on the bus home at 10pm.

“The health of one of us begets the health of us all,” Matt said, trying to sound important. “I ask myself every day how to protect everyone and preserve liberties.” In which case the rest of us should have been asking ourselves every day why he hasn’t resigned. Because just about every decision he has made has failed either to protect lives or preserve liberties.

We locked down far too late, we have one of the highest mortality rates in the country, our test-and-trace system – largely outsourced to private companies with no healthcare experience – is a global joke, and the “world beating” app that Door Matt was boasting more than 12 million people had downloaded is riddled with glitches and can’t process NHS tests. As if to annoy every Tory libertarian in the run up to Wednesday, he ended by announcing tighter lockdown restrictions in north-east England.

The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, understandably barely went through the motions of replying to this non-event, though he did manage to annoy some of the Tory freedom fighters by suggesting they wanted to let the virus rip through the country.

No pointless debate, though, is complete without a pointless speech from Desmond Swayne, an MP whose self-love is only matched by his self-delusion. He began by saying he believed the happy-go-lucky Boris for whom he had voted had been captured by Dr Strangeglove (sic). He then implied the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser should be tried for treason under the Project Fear Act. Scientists were completely pointless; apart from the three who happened to agree with him that basically the UK should go back to normal living and if you died, you died. There could be no greater cause than dying of the coronavirus so that people like him could do what they liked.

“Sweden,” squeaked John Redwood, apparently unaware of the geographical and demographic differences between the UK and Scandinavia. But by then Door Matt had long since left. It turns out that the health secretary does have some vestigial trace of self-respect after all and feels there are limits to his own sense of futility. If not the country’s.

Source: The Guardian
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