Tory delegates and Covid counters caught up in the circle of doom | John Crace | Politics

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Credit where credit’s due. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats realised that an online party conference was an accident waiting to happen and did as little as possible to promote them in advance. So they were both almost universally ignored. Which counts as a major PR result.

The Conservatives, however, have rather more grandiose ambitions – though with a website that looks like it has been constructed by someone who has just failed their IT GCSE for the second time. Someone like Typhoid Dido Harding. If you’re lucky enough to be able to log on, then you’re more than likely to be misdirected to the wrong area of the conference.

After a quick tour of the online exhibitors – most of which were unreachable through the website links – I found myself by accident in a fringe meeting on “levelling up” with Steve Barclay. At least that’s what the session was supposed to be about, but as the live stream buffered for five minutes I have no idea if Steve had any answers. Even worse, I couldn’t extract myself from the session without pressing control-alt-delete to deliberately crash my laptop, which meant that I missed the “fireside chat” with Gavin Williamson. Which was a shame as flogging fireplaces is his only known area of competence.

Having logged back in, I did find momentary relief in being immediately directed to Thérèse Coffey in conversation in the main auditorium. The thought did occur to me that the only reason I had managed to access this session was because I was the only person in the entire country who was listening to it. I can’t remember a single word she said. There again, the only reason I was listening to her was because she had been chosen as the warm-up act for Rishi Sunak. But moments before he was due to speak, up came the circle of doom and the website died again. I tried to watch via the Twitter and Facebook streams but these two had also crashed.

Once I was able to watch on catch up 30 minutes later, all became clear. The various conference platforms had been trying to do me a favour as the chancellor had literally nothing of any interest to say. His brief, entirely pointless 10-minute speech, felt like it had been cobbled together by a CCHQ random generator of platitudes that Tories had been focus-grouped to doze off to after a few drinks.

Rishi began by praising Boris. Top bloke. People shouldn’t believe stories that the prime minister was narcissistic, lazy, entitled and out of his depth: he was really the most caring man in the entire country. Sunak knows he is the runaway favourite to be the next Tory leader and it’s not a good look to put the boot into Boris too soon in the piece. Far better to damn him with obviously unheart-felt flattery and obsequiousness.

Then after modestly running through his own achievements, he declared it his intention to balance the books. Given that the chancellor has just spent more than £300bn on coronavirus bailout plans, it sounds as if we’re heading for massive tax rises or a return to austerity. Or maybe he hadn’t expected anyone to be still listening this far in to the speech and thought he could say any old bollocks. “I’m a pragmatist,” he concluded, apparently unaware that the rest of his party had been taken over by lunatic fanatics who would rather bankrupt the country than reach a sensible Brexit deal. Even Sunak looked slightly abashed at that. Where’s that buffering when you need it?

With the Tories unable to even run a website for their own conference, it’s hardly surprising that between them Public Health England and NHS test and trace are unable to keep track of the number of coronavirus infections. Over the weekend it was revealed that roughly 16,000 cases went unreported – and more than 50,000 contacts not asked to self-isolate – so it was inevitable that Matt Hancock would have to abandon his comfy “why are you so marvellous?” conference conversation for a live gig in the Commons as he was summoned to make his usual Monday ministerial statement on why things had gone tits up again.

Matt was not a happy Door Matt as he did his best to minimise the problem. The problem was just a minor technical issue, he insisted – 16,000 people were a drop in the ocean. Why couldn’t people concentrate instead on Project Orbis, his new brainwave to make sure people got their cancer treatment on time after we left the EU? Or the £3.7bn with which Boris was planning to build 40 new hospitals out of Lego?

The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, also sounded more long-suffering than usual. Having to come back to the house week after week to find out why some other part of the world-beating coronavirus response isn’t working has left him equally enervated. Could Door Matt think of anything that had gone as planned, he enquired more or less courteously. And was there anyone in charge who knew what they were doing as it was clear that neither the health secretary, the prime minister or Typhoid Dido had a clue?

At this point, the cocktail of valium and beta blockers that Hancock now needs for every appearance at the dispatch box began to kick in and he started rambling incoherently. There wasn’t a real problem because he had known about the Excel problem back in July and no one could expect Serco or any of the other private labs to install a simple system update in less than three months. So it was a legacy issue. And if a few extra people died because of the week’s delay in tracing contacts then it was no big deal. They too would have legacy issues.

It’s not just Ashworth who is losing patience with Door Matt. The whole house is. Even Jeremy Hunt. And when the usually ineffectual chair of the health select committee has you in your sights, then you really are screwed. Hunt’s observation that the private labs couldn’t cope was one of the session’s understatements. Labour’s Stella Creasy picked up on the same theme: 50,000 people had been denied access to vital contact information because the system for which the country had been paying £12bn to private companies had not been working since July.

Door Matt merely shrugged. It was time to think of the big picture and not just pick on the minor dysfunctional cogs in the wheel. Stella looked stunned and started laughing in disbelief. The health secretary not only considered 50,000 people to be justifiable collateral damage, he was unable to accept that test and trace had lurched from one shambles to another from the start. As with the Tory conference, the computer said no.

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
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