“I have to level with you,” said the prime minister and we all know what happened next because we’ve heard it so many times before. What happened is the prime minister didn’t level with us, because he never does.
Because he can’t. The worse the news, the thicker the sugar coating. It’s no accident. It’s an actual philosophy. Even now, all this time on, the part of Boris Johnson that thinks the coronavirus will be sent packing with a bit of optimism just keeps enduring.
He had to level with us that the Indian variant has arrived in the UK in a quite significant way, the speed at which it is replicating intimates it that it spreads 50 per cent faster than the Christmas-ruining Kent variant, which itself spread 50 per cent faster than the variants it effortlessly took over from.
He had to level with us that this new variant “could make it more difficult to move to step 4 in June”. By which he means the 21 June date at which life is meant to return to normal now seems highly unlikely.
But he had to add that it wasn’t “impossible” that everything will go ahead as planned. Nothing in life is impossible, of course, so why shouldn’t this be?
For a while, a while ago, it really did seem like Boris Johnson had broken his habit of overpromising and underdelivering. Of, whenever things had got worse, pretending they had got better. Partly because things actually have got better. But that old Boris variant has roared back with a vengeance.
It is, yet again, something of an unfortunate time to be blessed with a prime minister who cannot make a difficult decision. A difficult decision that might, for example, involve clamping down on international arrivals in a meaningful way.
It is close to a year since it became known that the rapid spread of Covid-19, last summer, was a consequence of returning British holidaymakers from Spain and Italy.
And yet, as Covid-19 soared in India, dozens and dozens of flights from there landed in the UK. Requirements to quarantine at home, and so on, were done in such a way as were impossible to enforce. And here we are, where we are.
The prime minister declined to take any action to halt step 3 of the gradual unlocking, which means that theatres are still scheduled to reopen on Monday, restaurants can serve indoors and overnight stays are allowed.
As he said these words, refusing to do anything other than carry on as normal, the scientific data that has brought us to this point was made public. It includes the following words: “If this variant were to have a 40-50 per cent transmission advantage nationally compared to B.1.1.7 [the Kent variant], sensitivity analyses in the modelling of the roadmap in England indicate that it is likely that progressing with step 3 alone (with no other local, regional, or national changes to measures) would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations (similar to, or larger than, previous peaks).”
And the latest Sage papers do indeed indicate the India variant is highly likely to be much more transmissible. They also make clear that there are too few adults currently vaccinated to stop this variant from spreading, and also that even vaccinated adults might be more likely to spread this variant than other ones.
Which means, in short, that proceeding as planned on Monday is, probably, an incredibly bad idea. And, based on past performance, may not in fact happen.
It’s always worth remembering that it is only four months since Johnson reopened schools for a single day then closed them again. Why did he do that? Because he would rather the bad news got 10 times worse if it meant that he didn’t have to deliver it.
But, you know, this is what “levelling with you” really means – the complete opposite. A bit like levelling up, perhaps. It’s just something to say, some words to fill the rarefied air when you just can’t bring yourself to actually do it.