Where was Boris Johnson?
Normally whenever the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser are giving a Downing Street briefing, the prime minister – or failing that, a cabinet minister – is on view alongside them.
But on Monday, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty went out just as a double act. Either because they didn’t trust the prime minister not to undermine the gravity of the situation – Boris hates being the bearer of bad news and can usually be relied on to make light of the situation – or because the government is paralysed and has no idea how to act on the new information.
Not that what Whitty and Vallance had to say came as any great surprise. It has been clear for some time now that the coronavirus pandemic has been getting rapidly worse and the two lugubrious amigos, who have always seemed most comfortable when downbeat, just laid out the data as plainly as they could.
Infection rates were doubling every seven days; by mid-November there could be 200 deaths a day; only 8% of the population had been infected so herd immunity was a pipe dream; the virus wasn’t getting milder though treatment had improved; people can’t be trusted to manage their own risk as it increases everyone else’s risk.
The use of the term “world-beating” was now on the proscribed list. Testing wasn’t even mentioned. They had seen the way things had gone in France and Spain before and how the UK had still suffered more deaths than both countries. With France and Spain currently experiencing a second wave could we afford to outperform their fatality rates again?
You’ve got to ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky?
Having raced through the “we’re basically still screwed” scenario, Whitty and Vallance made a dash for the exit without taking any questions. Their job was to level with the public over how they saw the science, not provide solutions.
That was for the politicians who had been notable by their absence. So we never got to learn what the CSA and CMO made of the government’s previous pronouncements on getting back to work and eating out to help out.
Or indeed the effect of Dominic Cummings’ Durham safari.
Neither did we find out how rigorously the “rule of six” should be implemented – Boris has always been notably relaxed on this – or if it had ever been a good idea; whether pubs and restaurants should be closed or given curfews; if new lockdowns should be imposed or what constituted “unnecessary contact between households”.
Nor what the scientists considered an acceptable trade-off between prioritising public health – including non-Covid illnesses – and minimising the effects on the economy.
That was all well above their pay grade.
And for the time being at least, seemingly above the pay grade of the prime minister. At a time of national anxiety that had just been ramped up several notches by the press conference, all the chickens were headless.
The inescapable inference was that the government was clueless, had largely been making things up as they went along and that all the difficult decisions were now just too difficult. It all seemed a long way from Johnson’s previous remarks that things would be back to normal by Christmas.
Around lunchtime it was announced that the prime minister would be responding to Whitty and Vallance’s presentation with a statement the following day.
That just left Matt Hancock to give his by now customary Monday Commons update on the announcements he had either made the previous Friday or leaked to the Sunday papers.
As the CMO and the CSA had said, the situation was critical, he said – Matt is one of their biggest fans in cabinet, so there would be further local lockdowns, £10,000 fines for persistent rule-breakers, a £500 hardship payment for people on low incomes forced to self-isolate and an exemption for carers looking after children under the age of 14.
Labour’s Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, had little to say in reply. Partly because none of what Hancock had said was news.
Though, not for the first time, he did wonder why the test-and-trace system was still in such a mess after the government had had several relatively quiet months to put in place measures that really could make a difference over the autumn and winter.
Matt merely shrugged. Either he too had given up on the UK’s record on test and trace or he couldn’t believe it should still be a bone of contention.
It was Chris Grayling, Simon Clarke and Graham Brady who gave Hancock the hardest time, however.
There is a growing band of Tory libertarians who think the government has gone far too far in its efforts to keep people alive during the coronavirus pandemic and that too many restrictions have already been imposed.
The cure was turning out to be worse than the disease, they claimed. We were turning into a Stasi state and it was time for every true-born Brit to be free to take whatever risks they saw fit.
Matt decided just to humour them with polite pleasantries. For once this was not his fight. Tomorrow, Boris would have to come to the Commons and explain that while he might have sounded a bit casual about lockdown in the past, this time he really, really meant it.
How far he would go on further lockdowns and restrictions on social gatherings, Hancock hadn’t a clue. Though Matt was sure he would support them regardless of whether he agreed with them. Because that’s what Door Matts do.