In her first Downing Street press conference since May, home secretary Priti Patel made at least one unforced error amid a series of rambling and at times incoherent statements on the state of the UK’s battle against Covid-19.
The Cabinet minister “misspoke” during the televised event – which pushed the narrative that Covid restrictions are “crystal clear” – when she said that “outdoor recreation” is permitted in a “restricted and limited way”. It has, in fact, been prohibited during the lockdown.
Home Office sources said it was a slip of the tongue. 'The Home Secretary was clearly talking about exercise,' one said.
— Sam Blewett (@BlewettSam) January 12, 2021
Leaders of police groups have been calling on the government to clarify the “incredibly vague” rules for exercise, and things were hardly 20-20 after Patel’s 30-minute stint at the podium.
1. Ignores first question
As is tradition, the opener came from a member of the public. It’s seldom the trickiest question of the session, but Ian from Preston on Tuesday had the home secretary ducking when he asked simply: “If the new Covid variant is more infectious, why are the new rules more relaxed?”
Patel launched into an answer that had little to do with the question: “I think it’s really important to reflect, quite frankly, on the state we are in right now, and you’ve heard my remarks, (National Police Chiefs’ Council chairman Martin Hewitt) and (Dr Vin Diwakar, regional medical director for London) comments about the impact of Covid, not just a new variant but all the measures we have put in place and why we need to have these rules.
“Our message is crystal clear – this is to stay at home, and if I may Dr Diwakar has made a very sobering point that we should all act like we have Covid in order to protect others, and this is not about rules being more relaxed, we have clear rules. And I would urge everybody across the country to make sure we follow those rules, so that we can protect the NHS and save lives.
“I think that is absolutely imperative.”
And now we're on to the questions.
Priti Patel answers questions like it's her GCSE French oral and she doesn't have a clue what she's been asked and is just listing all the words she knows in random order.
— Tom Peck (@tompeck) January 12, 2021
2. The rules are tough enough – despite cases soaring
At the start of the press conference, Patel revealed that official figures showed there were a further 45,533 Covid cases and 1,243 deaths in the UK in the last 24 hours. And yet the lockdown rules are “tough enough”, the frontbencher insisted after being pressed three times at the briefing.
“The rules are tough enough. You’ve already heard – 45,000 fixed penalty notices have been issued just in the time since we’ve been in this pandemic. So they are tough enough. The message is clear. We urge everybody to continue to follow the rules. The more we follow the rules, the sooner we can drive this awful atrocious disease down.
“And the reason why we have these rules are to absolutely try and contain the pandemic and to save lives. So by sticking with this – and that is the message to everyone, again and again, stick with the rules, think about your actions, stay at home, stay local, and minimise your social contact. And of course we will get on top of this pandemic.”
I'm struggling a bit here. Home Secretary Priti Patel just said "we've seen endless egregious breaches" [of the rules] but a moment ago she said the rules are tough enough and a few minutes before that, most people are following them. Which is it?
— Kate McCann (@KateEMcCann) January 12, 2021
3. It’s a “health pandemic”, apparently
The word mangling was best illustrated by Patel twice referring to the Covid-19 outbreak as a “health pandemic”.
“We are in a health pandemic right now,” she mused. “Everyone has to be conscientious in their actions and therefore act and behave as if we have Covid, therefore restricting all our social contacts. So the rules are clear.”
There we go again: “rules are clear”. And the misleading phrase cropped up again: “The fact of the matter is we are in a pandemic, we are in a health pandemic. You have already heard me say the number of people that have passed away - died - 1,243 fatalities reported today, when we have people dying, when we have people tragically succumbing to this virus, we all have to exercise our judgement and be very conscientious as to how we act.”
Does anyone know why Priti Patel keeps saying 'we're in a health pandemic'? What other sorts are there?
— Olivia Smith (@OliveFSmith) January 12, 2021
"Look we are in a health pandemic" gosh Priti I had no idea! Now if you could just answer the question that was asked...
— Arthur Walsh (@PharMagArthur) January 12, 2021
4. Reflections on exercise
The news conference came during much confusion around the limits to exercising during lockdown: prime minister Boris Johnson went for a bike ride seven miles from Downing Street while two women were incorrectly fined for driving five miles from their Derbyshire homes to meet for a walk.
Patel had a few thoughts.
“We are in a pandemic. The British people are absolutely sensible, they are conscientious, they understand the stay at home message. And when it comes to staying at home, that also means staying local, and that equally applies too – exercise is important, it is important for people’s health and well-being, and that equally applies to exercise.”
"You know, exercise is important. It's important for people's health and wellbeing. And that equally applies to exercise." Priti Patel
— Michael Deacon (@MichaelPDeacon) January 12, 2021
5. The “endless discussions”
So if you’ve been following, the message has been clear and the rules are tough. Though, the rules may need to be tightened. Possibly.
Pick the bones out of the response to The Telegraph’s Gordon Rayner: “To your question about tightening the rules. As you would expect in government, there are endless discussions about the state of coronavirus, support and capacity within the NHS, and also lockdown measures right now and rules per se. We are not going to speculate on anything – conversations always – these issues are always live in government, and ways of working are always under review. So we are constantly right now looking at where we are at.”
She continued: “Sadly, you have seen the fact that too many people are still succumbing to this dreadful virus. And the fact of the matter is right now, we want people to very much follow the rules that are in place right now because by following those rules, that is effectively how we can collectively whack this virus down, get this virus down, free up capacity in the NHS and obviously do even more when it comes to rolling out the vaccine.”
No one is as good at using a lot of words to fail to answer a question as Priti Patel.
— Susanna Reid (@susannareid100) January 12, 2021
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.