They’re talking balls at No 10 as Boris plays sideshow to Whitty v Minaj

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. En, if you really must, do mention the health and social care bill. Though preferably without drawing attention to the broken promise of a rise in 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 people to “wear a face covering”, almost everyone on the government benches is snuggling up to one another, defiantly mask free. It’s as though the coronavirus was yesterday’s problem. Or the guidelines are only for the little people.

But sooner or later, real life had to intrude, so the health secretary was rather obliged to come to the Commons 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. Not that he used that precise language. Na alles, there’s only so much reality the average Tory MP can cope with at any one time.

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 up and running 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. He also rather lamely suggested people should try to stay at home if they felt unwell. That should do it. Fighting fire with fire.

If all this didn’t work, wel, and the government was keeping all its fingers crossed that it did, there was a plan B. This involved making face masks compulsory in certain circumstances – cue loud boos from Desmond Swayne and others on the Tory benches – asking people to work from home, though definitely not during the party conference as the Conservatives didn’t want to be out of pocket, and the introduction of vaccine passports. The same vaccine passports that Javid had said only days earlier the government definitely wouldn’t be introducing. More like a case of definitely maybe.

There were relatively few Labour MPs in the chamber to hear the statement – why bother when most of it had been leaked overnight? – but there were plenty of Tories to register their disquiet at what they saw as a possible end to civil liberties. 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. He might even have a point.

Javid did his best to keep all the malcontents onside by assuring them they would be consulted on every change, but pointedly refused to rule out unilaterally implementing another lockdown. Not that this was something he wanted to do. Just something that might be forced on him. Something out of his hands. Though he was unable to say just what the tipping point from plan A to plan B to full lockdown might be. Other than some unspecified level of pressure on the NHS.

Later in the afternoon, Boris Johnson gave a press conference to deliver much the same message to the rest of the country. When these pressers began in March last year, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance seemed rather overwhelmed by their proximity to the prime minister. Now they have more than got Johnson’s measure and have no qualms about keeping him in check. So though Boris repeated the spiel – along with added “shots in the locker” and “tilts in the tiller” nonsense – about not being complacent, and there being 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 and stressed it wouldn’t take much to overload the NHS again. Vallance went further still, arguing it was best to go harder and earlier than you might want to when tackling the pandemic. Across the Channel were countries with similar levels of infection that were coming down because their governments 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.

The presser ended on a surreal note of Whitty telling the singer Nicki Minaj that she ought to be ashamed of herself for tweeting that the vaccination made gonads unfeasibly large and men impotent. Boris refrained from pointing out that it hasn’t done much harm to his own fertility. But then he also declined to say whether he would be reshuffling his cabinet in the next couple of weeks.

So we can take that as a yes.

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