Every cloud has a silver lining. While the increasingly prolonged Brexit trade negotiations – Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen appear on a mission to prove Zeno’s paradox – made most of the headlines in the past week, the coronavirus has been relegated to the second item on most news bulletins.
Which proved an unexpected bonus for Matt Hancock as he found his workload dramatically reduced. Only one Downing Street press conference, in which he had precisely nothing to say, and a single Commons appearance in which he did a victory lap of honour after the first vaccine was administered. Otherwise not much really. It was almost a week off.
But with coronavirus not showing any signs of going away, Hancock was back in the chamber to give a statement on the crisis. Having begun with his usual remarks about “sacrifice”, “straining every sinew” and “the national effort” that he now cuts and pastes from all his previous statements, Matt got down to the business in hand. It did not make for easy listening.
First, there was a new Covid variant that might have been responsible for the increased rates of transmission in the south-east – he hoped, but couldn’t promise, it was no worse than Covid’s first iteration and would respond to the vaccine.
Then we got down to the nitty-gritty that everyone already knew because it had been broadcast on social media hours previously.
Although the official tiering review date was in two days’ time, wing to the increasing rate of transmission, the government had had to act more swiftly by putting London and parts of Essex and south Hertfordshire into tier 3 as from midnight on Wednesday morning.
You could almost sense the panic in Door Matt’s voice as yet another government measure to control the virus had proved only partially effective. Though weirdly some Tories seemed to think the new data meant that their own constituencies should have been placed in tier 1 from the off.
Labour’s Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, responded more with sorrow than with anger. As if he was just thankful he wasn’t the minister stuck in the middle of hawkish cabinet colleagues hellbent on keeping as much of the economy open regardless of what the scientists were advising.
Ashworth began by saying that it had been only a matter of time before London and parts of the south-east were moved up to tier 3 as that’s where they should have been from the very start of the government’s new system.
He also observed that tier 3 didn’t seem to be doing much to control the spread of the virus in Kent, which was already in tier 3. He left the question hanging about whether the government had a plan if tier 3 proved ineffective on a larger scale.
So Hancock did not feel obliged to say whether there would be a new level of tier 4, whether he would rethink the tiering system for a third time or impose another national lockdown. For which he gave thanks for small mercies, as all three options must be on his mind.
Though stopping short of calling for the five-day Christmas free-for-all to be scrapped, Ashworth did gently wonder if it was a good idea to effectively suspend all three tiers over Christmas. How was allowing any number of people, who may or may not have the virus, travel around the country to spend time with elderly relatives in lower tiers, be, in any sense of the word, safe?
The Lib Dem Munira Wilson and the Conservative Tobias Ellwood were rather more forthright. It was clearly insane to risk the health of so many people, so soon after the government had imposed restrictions to mitigate both the load on the NHS and the number of deaths. Here Door Matt sounded genuinely conflicted: his voice became more brittle and he thumped the dispatch box in frustration. You got the feeling that if it was up to him he’d cancel Christmas right here and now.
But because Boris had promised the country the treat of allowing everyone the possibility of killing members of their family, the prime minister was determined not to let anyone down. Typical. You wait years for Johnson to keep a promise and he ends up keeping the one you wish he wouldn’t.
So all Matt could do was just offer a few platitudes. Just because people were able to see their families, he said, it didn’t mean they were actually obliged to do so. Most people’s Christmases ended up with some kind of row, so why not cut your losses ahead of the game and just stay at home after all? Or just travel 200 miles to see your grandparents and then merely speak to them through the window for a few minutes. Somehow, I’m not sure that one’s going to catch on.
At the Downing Street press conference an hour later, some of the negativity appeared to have rubbed off on Hancock. The last few months have left him scarred and there are few signs of the old enthusiastic Tigger. Predictably, most of the questions were about the wisdom of the five-day Christmas amnesty and, with Chris Whitty sounding less than thrilled about the prospect – the most he was prepared to say was that it was a time of year when people like to see their relatives but they should do so responsibly, aka not at all – Matt became noticeably more evasive on when or whether there should be further restrictions.
“People should be cautious,” Matt said cautiously, before insisting he wouldn’t be afraid to take further action if required. Though he hedged his bets on whether that action would come before or after Christmas if infection levels continued to rise. Not least because that was a decision well above his pay grade.