Out she strode, the Smirk of Death. If the government were a 1970s bank robber gang, Priti Patel would be Shotgun One, The Frightener.
The virus needs to be shown who’s boss. Actually, hang on, that’s not quite right. It’s the people who need to be shown who’s boss, and that boss is Priti Patel.
Despite being one of the four most senior politicians in the country, and the most senior woman, and directly responsible for a very large number of the most significant pandemic related policy areas, Priti Patel has not been permitted to host the daily coronavirus press briefing since May last year, when she claimed the correct number of Covid-19 tests carried out that day had been, “Three-hundred thousand, and thirty four, nine hundred and seventy-four thousand.”
But that was then. This is now. Things are serious now. So serious that even the government has worked out they’re serious. Things are so serious they’ve even stopped ignoring all the people whose job it is to tell them whether things are serious, telling them that, yes, things are serious.
This, really, is the problem with the new Covid variant. It’s not like its parents, who were illegal immigrants, dirty foreigners that live in China, or Pangolin, or wherever. This virus was born here, in Kent to be exact – it’s as British as you and I – and good lord, no one could ever claim it’s not trying to integrate.
No, it’s not the virus that needs to be sent home, it’s us. You and me. Quite literally, in fact. And here was Priti Patel telling us to do just that. Go back to your home and stay there.
Leaked Home Office documents suggest the home secretary has already had staff investigate new ways of making sure everyone just stays at home, including installing high-powered wave machines at the entrance to every street, which can be deployed to just blast granny back into her bungalow if it looks like she’s on her way into town for anything other than essential food shopping.
Ms Patel was asked the same question three times. If the new variant is more contagious, why are the rules of this lockdown less strict than the last one. She was asked it first by a member of the public, then asked it again by Mark Easton, one of the BBC’s most senior journalists, and a third time by ITV News. She was asked it three times, partly because it is such a blindingly obvious question, and partly because at no point did she make any attempt to answer it.
Ms Patel’s method of answering questions is always the same. It is like listening to someone being asked a question they don’t understand in a GCSE French oral exam, and thus responding with a kind of meaningless free association of words and phrases that might be relevant, a kind of special equivocatory edition of Finnegans Wake.
Asked whether the “rules were tough enough to contain the pandemic”, she could only reply that “yes, the rules are tough enough. Forty-five thousand fixed penalty fines have been issued.”
This, you do not need to be told, is not the same. If a worried dad-to-be calls up a maternity ward and says, “Are you sure there’s going to be somewhere for me to park the car?”, he may not be vastly reassured by the answer, “Of course there will be. We’ve issued 45,000 parking tickets already.”
But, you know, here we are. Hundreds of people died yesterday. Same again tomorrow, no doubt, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. And not just any old death, a very sad and lonely one. Ms Patel put on her very sternest voice to read out the number.
If she and the rest had any respect for the awful, mindbending scale of loss they have overseen, one way to manifest it would be to give a simple answer to a simple question. That’s what these press conference are meant to be for, after all.