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On a normal Monday the Commons might have been preoccupied with the prime minister’s “unintentional” decision not to sack Priti Patel after she was found guilty of having broken the ministerial code on bullying. Instead, the home secretary’s behaviour was long forgotten as Boris Johnson used the time to announce the new coronavirus measures instead.
Talking via a video link from No 10, where he is still self-isolating, Johnson said we were returning to the tiered system, which worked so well the first time that a second lockdown became a necessity. Though these new tiers would be quite different from the old tiers. In some ways they would be more relaxed, with non-necessary retail and gyms now allowed open in all levels. And in tiers 1 and 2, some outdoor and indoor spectators would be allowed to attend sporting events, while in tier 2 no one one would be allowed into a pub unless they also ordered a substantial meal. Go figure.
Tier 3 would more or less be like the current national lockdown apart from the bits that wouldn’t. It all felt pretty much like something that had been cobbled together on the back of a fag packet in cabinet to fit in with what the libertarian wing of the Tory party might accept, rather than something that was based on hard scientific evidence.
But Boris didn’t want us to feel too gloomy about everything. The vaccine trials did look promising, testing was improving, and all being well we might be back to more or less normal by Easter. And as a special treat – though he couldn’t yet go into exact details – there would be some kind of amnesty over Christmas so families could meet up.
Though this had to kept hush-hush for now, because if the coronavirus got wind of any relaxations in measures it could seek to take advantage by working overtime and leaving many elderly relatives dead in January and February. There again, it’s been a long old year for Covid-19 as well, so maybe the virus could do with a four-day break too.
Keir Starmer didn’t sound wholly convinced. He’s heard too many broken promises from Johnson already and, having backed the government on all its previous public health measures, he wanted a little more detail on the package before conferring his blessing. How confident was Johnson that these new tiers weren’t also going to end up in another lockdown?
And when would he announce which regions would be put into which tiers? There were going to be some mightily pissed off people in the north of England if they were to find themselves back in tier 3, if parts of London and the south-east – where the R rate was at its highest – remained in tier 2. As an aside, Starmer ended by saying the government had rather forgotten the track and isolate bit of test, track and isolate.
But this was Boris at his most nonchalant. His answers to the Labour leader amounted to little more than qualified thanks for opposition support, and he again gave the chamber the distinct impression that he was more interested in coming up with a system of measures that all of his own party could tolerate rather than one designed to beat the virus.
Something that was borne out in his reply to Mark Harper, who declared he and fellow Conservative MP Steve Baker had written to the prime minister demanding evidence for his policies. This felt like trying to get a parent to prove the existence of Santa, though Baker demanding policy-driven evidence was a first for the MP for Wycombe. Next the Brexiter will be threatening to go to the European court of human rights. Oh. He already has. The irony was not lost on anyone.
At which point the sound link from No 10 went down. “Have you muted yourself?” said the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, hopefully. “Have you pressed the button?” Still nothing. Boris’s IT skills don’t appear to have been noticeably improved by his lessons from Jennifer Arcuri.
Just as Hoyle was about to suspend the session amid much laughter, you could hear Johnson plaintively yell: “Some problem with the sound.” But the Speaker had heard too much already and handed over the next 45 minutes of the session to Matt Hancock to answer the questions, as he reckoned we’d more likely hear more sense.
Not that the health secretary had any better answers than Boris, but at least his smirk looks more serious in his non-committal answers than the prime minister’s. There was an understandable edge of panic in Door Matt’s voice. Not just at being unexpectedly put on the spot but with the self-awareness that the latest measures are as much guesswork as the previous ones.
Shortly after 5pm we did get Johnson back, seemingly from another room in No 10 that had been hastily converted into a new comms nerve centre, AKA somewhere you could operate the broadband connection via a personal hotspot. But we didn’t really learn anything new.
It looked as if Boris was still experiencing IT problems a couple of hours later when he left the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, and Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford vaccine, waiting at the Downing Street lecterns like a couple of spare parts as he failed to show up on his remote screen. But eventually the prime minister managed to reboot his laptop for a press conference that was basically a rerun of his Commons statement, albeit with more focus on the vaccine.
Johnson happily went into a string of lazy metaphors – “the drumming hooves of the cavalry coming over the hill”, “Tis the season to be jolly, but also the season to be jolly careful” – before lapsing into rhyme with “squeeze the disease”.
Not for the first time, it was left to the scientists to remind everyone to basically ignore the prime minister and to listen to them instead.
Source: The Guardian
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