Boris Johnson's Covid briefing gave the misleading impression of a government still in control

My heart sank when I heard that the PM was delivering a ‘covid update’ flanked by Professors Whitty and Vallance (see the video below). If there were good news to impart, the Eeyore and Private Frazer of public health wouldn’t be your top choices.

After last week’s doom-mongering duet, featuring slides dramatising alarming exponential growth, I half expected their statement to be given sitting in coffins with “We’re all going to die!” painted on the side (followed, perhaps, by the disclaimer “this isn’t a prediction, it’s an illustration of what can happen”.) So the news of no new restrictions came as a pleasant surprise. 

The PM certainly began on an upbeat note, boasting of 31,500 mechanical ventilators and a four-month PPE stockpile.

The British people don’t want to throw in the sponge; they want to fight and defeat this virus!”, he declared, mixing his idioms – perhaps in some deliberate, Cummings-inspired messaging strategy to get people talking. 

Then Professor Chris Whitty unveiled a series of colourful graphs, bizarrely at odds with the Chief Medical Officer’s funereal tone, showing infection rates by age group (gaudy orange and green for party-hard 20-and-30 somethings; black for 85+, the doomed demographic.)

“Things are definitely headed in the wrong direction now”, intoned Vallance dolefully. 

Then came a slide showing intensive care admissions over time. This was the same as last week’s, except the scale on the Y axis had been halved, giving more dramatic results. Both went back only to July (was this because, contrasted with last Spring, the ‘Second Wave’ might appear more of a puddle?) 

A funky animated map followed, showing the ebb and flow of positive test results across the country since the start of the pandemic. Though a cartographic triumph, its colour scheme made no allowances for the expansion of testing since then, implying similar case numbers to the First Wave, which got me wondering.

One squirrel in Colorado recently tested positive for the bubonic plague; scientists taking their usual logic to extremes might conclude that case numbers were lower in 1348, given the tragic scarcity of reliable tests in the Medieval world. When it comes to context, discretion, it seems, is the better part of Vallance. 

But it was not all doom and gloom. There was the welcome news that school reopenings had not prompted a surge of infections among children – though not enough, apparently, to disqualify them from the Rule of Six. And, finally, a reminder that the NHS remains open for business.

“We are not saying… don’t go to hospital, don’t go to your GP”, said Whitty, in a disclaimer that felt rather like shutting the stable door after enough horses for a Mongol invasion had bolted, but better late than never. 

Eventually the trio heard from members of the public. When Tia from Oldham asked about support for young people, the PM spoke of “Covid-secure universities” before resorting to a favourite metaphor. That the government will be “putting its arms around the workforce” must come as a relief to incarcerated students, even if hugging their parents remains off-limits. 

Things worsened with the arrival of the lobby and their trademark rambling monologues disguised as questions. Some were thinly-veiled agitations for more lockdown. Had the PM gone “far enough fast enough” in his restrictive measures, demanded Pippa Crerar of the Daily Mirror?

“Are you personally mixing with other households at the moment?” asked Beth Rigby of Sky, presumably on the prowl for more Ferguson-esque antics. The CMO’s worthy reply proved a sad disappointment. 

Nothing much changed, so why was the update necessary? After the humiliating capitulation to Tory rebels earlier in the day, perhaps this was meant to give the misleading impression of a government still in control – not one constantly on the back foot, snatching defeat from the jaws of an 80-seat majority.

I will leave readers with the worst news from Wednesday – the press conferences will be resuming monthly. 

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