One reality for the Tory MPs – and a different one for the rest of us
Don’t mention the war. Actually, scrub that. Do mention the war, providing you don’t harp on about the shambolic evacuation that left hundreds – if not thousands – of Afghans who had worked for the UK government stranded in Kabul. And, if you really must, do mention the health and social care bill. Though preferably without drawing attention to the broken promise not to increase national insurance contributions. But whatever you do, don’t mention the pandemic.
For the last few weeks in Westminster, it’s almost been as if Tory backbenchers – and many frontbenchers for that matter – would rather do anything than be reminded that Covid still remains the country’s main public health problem. Despite the many posters pinned up around the parliamentary estate urging everyone to “play your part and keep colleagues safe. You are strongly urged to wear a face covering”, almost everyone on the government benches was snuggling up to one another, mask free. It’s as though the coronavirus was yesterday’s problem. Or the guidelines are for the little people.
But sooner or later, real life had to intrude, so the health secretary was rather obliged to give a statement reminding MPs that Covid was still a present danger and that the prime minister’s “irreversible roadmap to freedom” wasn’t quite as irreversible as had been initially hoped. Doing his best to sound as bored and disengaged as possible, Sajid Javid began with the good news. The government had a coronavirus winter Plan A that involved booster jabs for the over-50s, vaccinations for 12 to 15-year-olds – it might have been helpful to get that programme going before the schools went back – more resources for the NHS, getting people to meet outdoors in November and encouraging everyone to wear masks. Rather a question of “do as I say, not as I do” for the bare faces on the Tory benches.
If all this didn’t work, there was a Plan B. This involved making face masks compulsory in certain circumstances, asking people to work from home, and Covid vaccine passports. The same vaccine passports Javid had said days earlier the government wouldn’t be introducing.
There were plenty of Tories present to register their disquiet. Graham Brady suggested that fewer people had tested positive after coming back from abroad than had done so when holidaying at home. Presumably his solution to the pandemic would be for everyone to leave the country.
Later, Boris Johnson gave a press conference. When these pressers began in March last year, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance seemed rather overwhelmed by their proximity to the PM. Now they have more than got Johnson’s measure. So though Boris repeated the spiel about a slightly vague Plan A and Plan B, it was the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser who gave the most direct answers.
Whitty made plain the link between vaccination and staying alive. Vallance argued it was best to go harder and earlier than you might want to when tackling the pandemic. Across the Channel were countries with levels of infection that were coming down because they hadn’t been afraid to act. He looked at Boris with something approaching disdain. He seemed to be thinking that the UK could get similar results if we didn’t have such a deadbeat for prime minister, who couldn’t even get his own MPs to wear a mask.
It seemed the prime minister’s ‘irreversible roadmap to freedom’ wasn’t quite as irreversible as had been initially hoped