All the pomp of the new No 10 briefing room was wasted on a Covid press conference of little substance
The prime minister arrived in his brand new, £2.6m press briefing room with the unmistakable vibe of a feckless absentee father, doing his Monday afternoon teleconference call. Trying to be so many things at once. He wants to be the fun one, so did a shout out to Ilkeston Cycle Club, who met at midnight as the clock turned on the 29 Maart; then a big up to Hillingdon lido, who did whatever they do there. He also wants to prove that, this time, he’s deadly serious, a grave and sober man of his word, and his brow is heavy with all the memories of why you might not believe him.
He has some new curtains he wants to show you, which are both union flags, and some rather sudden paintwork, a fierce Conservative blue, because obviously that’s the colour of authority and this is your government for ever. Though when you consider how much he could have spent on wallpaper, you have to look on the bright side. The intention of the new setting must have been jocular jingoism, but it came off a little mournful, slightly beseeching, like: 'Kyk, I’ve bought an inflatable mattress, soon you’ll be able to stay the night!”
There isn’t a lot to say, so that doesn’t help: “I’m personally thrilled that I will be able to play tennis. Without being remotely preachy, I do hope that we can take advantage of this moment and the beautiful weather to take exercise,” and fair play, it didn’t sound like a preach, it sounded like a man desperately trying to remind you of something, anything, you have in common – we all like sunshine, right? We all like doing that thing where you move instead of staying still?
In terms of new information, the vaccine taskforce has reached an agreement with GlaxoSmithKline to bottle and finish doses of Novavax, pending regulatory clearance. It’s in the north-east, Johnson repeated like a mantra, to avoid the awkwardness of saying where the manufacturing facility actually is, which is Barnard Castle. It was like a round of Just a Minute, played in hell; find 56 synonyms for a geographical location, but hesitate and divert as much as you like.
It wasn’t until the words came out in response to a question that their yawning emptiness unfurled. Beatrice from London, in the “regular person” segment of the presser, wanted to know whether any provision for foreign travel would be made for those whose families lived abroad. The answer is that no answer can be uttered until 5 April, and in the meantime: “Those rules will be governed entirely by the rules that govern travel abroad and people coming from abroad.” It was like a riddle. Nothing can be known until that which can be known is known, whereupon we will know some knowns.
The word “irreversible”, in relation to the roadmap out of lockdown, is doing some very heavy lifting. The plan remains “cautious but irreversible”, yet the irreversibility is itself subject to a large number of conditions – principally, nothing bad happening. Vallance and Whitty, as ever, were on hand to remind us of all the bad things that could happen: transmission is chiefly among unvaccinated groups, so the relaxation of lockdown is bound to cause an uptick; we could have virus imported from abroad; worse, we could have “variants of concern, variants which might have a problem with the vaccine, where the vaccine is less effective against them”, Whitty said, with feeling. He still says “next slide, please”, in that distinctive, forlorn but defensive voice, like a man reading a forced confession that an unkind jailer will only show him in instalments. I wish someone would buy him a clicker.
“Fortification” was Johnson’s keyword: the vaccine fortifies the population, its members have each shown great fortitude, we’ve all handbuilt this gigantic fort, and so on, until the umbrella metaphor got to Chris Whitty’s podium, whereupon he concluded: “it’s not a complete wall, it’s kind of a leaky wall.”
The only glimpse of on-the-hoof speechifying was when the prime minister described the infection numbers – particularly among schoolchildren under 16: “Those graphs slightly curl a bit, like old British Rail sandwiches.” Remember that, kids? Remember the time we went on a train? You used to love it on the train.