Some things don’t change. Like Matt Hancock wearing the same lucky pink tie he has worn every day for the past two weeks. Let’s just hope for his family’s sake he doesn’t also have lucky pants and socks.
But some things do change. “We’re going to do this a little bit differently today,” the health secretary said at the start of the daily Downing Street press conference. He wasn’t going to waste everybody’s time by reading a statement that people would inevitably pick holes in. He wasn’t even going to crow about the government’s success in containing the coronavirus that had led to that very day’s easing of lockdown restrictions. Not even a huge thank you for the national resolve that has meant some people could now watch the racing from Newcastle.
Instead, we got the brusque Matt, a man just keen to get the whole pantomime over and done with as fast as possible. Hancock has had enough and is at breaking point. In the early days of the pandemic, he was still enthusiastic: the Tigger who was thrilled to find himself at the centre of a national crisis and to be on TV nearly every day.
Now the thrill has gone. Boris Johnson still gets allowances made for having had coronavirus but no one gives Matt any leeway at all. He’s just the bloke who’s sent out time and again to defend the indefensible. He knows he’s the Muppet who is being lined up as the government fall guy but he’s in too deep to back out now. Even assuming he had the self-worth to tell Boris and his cabinet colleagues where to get off. Naught’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content. He is condemned by his own ambition, and his only release is to take out his misery on the cat. Most often a dead one.
What was most noticeable about this press conference was what was missing. There were no slides on the current R rate, which you’d have imagined was a necessity on the day lockdown was eased. The slide on whether we were actually in stage 3 or 4 of the pandemic had also gone awol. Presumably no one could agree whether we were at 4.01 or 3.99. But hey, we’ve always got pigeon racing and having sex outdoors to cheer us up. All that bullshit about “following the science” was so last month.
Instead Matt was happy to announce the government now had the capacity to do 200,000 tests a day – try telling that to my mother’s care home – but was actually only carrying out 128,000. Capacity means rather more to Matt than it does to everyone else. Almost all my school reports insisted I had the capacity to achieve higher grades than I managed. The government certainly had the capacity to handle the pandemic a great deal better than it has done, though that’s one area of capacity Matt is never too keen to explore.
“We’re winning the battle,” Matt said hesitantly. “And it’s important to remember we’re all on the same side.” So he wanted everyone to act responsibly, go out there, imagine what Dominic Cummings would have done and then do the exact opposite.
If Matt could have ended the briefing there and then he would have done, but sadly he was obliged to take a few questions. All of which he did his best to cut short. A member of the public wanted to know why the advice for shielding vulnerable people had been changed late on Saturday night, despite there being no scientific evidence to justify such a move and without any consultation with GPs. That wasn’t quite true, Hancock said. Doctors and patients had had all of Sunday to work out the best care plan. Why was everyone being so negative about a rushed change of guidelines that could kill thousands?
Things went downhill from there. In response to observations that many of those who had signed up as track and tracers had reported they had been asked to do nothing for days, Matt was insistent this was a sign the new scheme was working brilliantly. This was a cause for celebration. Because if the trackers were working then it would mean there were loads of people with the virus. So the fact that no one had got in touch with so many must mean we were winning the battle. He only wished every tracker had nothing to do.
For some reason – probably related to the UK having a higher number of new cases per day than most of the rest of Europe combined – the reporters were not entirely satisfied with this answer. Not least because Matt couldn’t come up with any figures for how many people had been tracked and how many contacts had been traced. “I don’t know,” said Matt irritably. “Though I’m sure it’s the majority.” Yup, me too.
It was almost as if the health secretary had no idea whether the very systems on which the easing of lockdown depended actually worked or not. A feeling that was only reinforced when he announced future localised lockdowns would be determined by a Joint Biosecurity Centre that he had already admitted didn’t yet exist. Matt had said too much. He hadn’t said enough. That was him in the corner. That was him in the spotlight.