T.There may come a time when an emergency press conference actually calms someone down, but we’re still a long way from that. But on the contrary. When Boris Johnson queued with Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance last Tuesday in Downing Street, the mood was much more relaxed. Although Boris had tried to look serious when he was doing his familiar “business as usual” action outside the house, he still had time for a few lighthearted gaffes and gags. And Whitty and Vallance seemed to enjoy their unexpected turn of the spotlight as the country’s most popular experts.
A week later, the three Amigos at No. 10 were back in the same representation room. But this time there was no smile and even less soothing words. Even the previously unshakable Whitty looked red and sweaty as he tried to choose his words carefully while Boris seemed to have aged for years.
This was not the job he signed up for last year. He liked to be the bearer of good news – mainly because of the need to distance himself from his own despair and destruction. He was the Prime Minister of Mr Fun Guy. The gaslighter-in-chief who could say, “Get the Brexit done,” and people would believe it, although it’s obviously nonsense.
The current crisis was a whole new ball game. No statement “We are killing corona virus” would prevent it. There was only so much nonsense that the public would stand. Now it was time to drop the replacement charm and show real leadership. And his self-doubt was all too visible. No wonder, because a key message was to act responsibly and think about others – two things that Boris rarely did.
It was too real for Boris, too difficult. He jumped from foot to foot nervously and his eyes wandered across the room for signs of comfort from the assembled reporters. His discomfort subsided. You could feel the tension in the room.
It soon turned out that nobody had anything new to say. They only felt the need to be visible and say pretty much the same things as before, only in a slightly more panicked tone. People should basically keep doing what they did before, they said. We were still in the containment phase, although Whitty had informed the Health Select Committee last Thursday that he believed that we had now entered the second phase of the “mostly late” phase. It looked like there wasn’t much of a difference between containment and delay.
The main message seemed to be that everyone knew the situation would deteriorate significantly, but the plan was to do nothing else until it got worse. Most questions focused on why we are no longer doing. If we knew Britain would be in the same situation as Italy in two weeks, why not try to stay ahead of the curve and implement some of the more extreme measures that the Italian government has already implemented? Doesn’t that have to save more lives?
Here we saw the coronavirus crisis as it was. A brutal numbers game to limit damage. There was no point in forbidding large gatherings yet – bad news for Spurs season ticket holders who were both hoping for a reasonable refund and spared the horrors of watching the team play football – or even small ones. Partly because it had little impact on transmission in the early stages of an epidemic. But mostly because people got bored if you introduced these measures too early, if they were really counted and ignored.
It was just a numbers game without numbers. At least none that Johnson, Whitty, or Vallance were willing to commit to. Whitty became unusually vague when asked if he agreed with the Scottish chief physician’s suggestion that 4% of those infected – possibly two million people – might need hospital treatment. Boris only said that he was sure that the NHS would continue to do an excellent job. Nobody thought it was the right time to remind him how many hospital beds the Tories had cut in the past 10 years. “It is time for a national effort,” he said. “The country has to pull together. We know how to beat it and we will. “We just had no idea about the victims that were expected.
In the early afternoon, Health Minister Matt Hancock came under a little more pressure when he was forced to answer an urgent question about the coronavirus epidemic. So far, all parties had been ready to relax the government a bit – a real meeting in a time of national emergency. Now, however, there was a feeling on all the banks that it was a time to become real and no longer speak in general.
The Labor shadow health minister wanted to know what the actual budgets were for the NHS. Jeremy Hunt asked about the government’s valued victims. Hilary Benn wanted to know how many ventilators there were and how many people were trained to use them. Tigger had no answers. On the other hand, nobody else. At least none that they are willing to share with us.