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Data limits

It appears Kier’s tiers’ fears draw near

“For the first time since this wretched virus took hold, we can see a route out,” Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on Monday. I have to confess I had missed the moments in his many previous statements on Covid when he told us that he could see no route out, that we might be stuck in this hell for ever, but perhaps that’s for the best. As father of the nation – precisely how much of the nation is still unknown – sometimes the prime minister has to keep things from us for our own good. Like reports into the behaviour of his ministers.

Johnson, still in isolation in Downing Street, continued to have the kind of internet connection more usually associated with remote parts of Scotland. Was there a games console in the next room downloading a huge update? Was he streaming high-definition video in another tab?

He was telling us about the Covid Winter Plan. It’s different from the Action Plan from March, Lockdown I (also March), the Gradual Relaxation (May), the Big Reopening (July), the Great Return To The Office (September), the Three Tiers But Definitely No National Lockdown (October) and the Inevitable Subsequent National Lockdown (November).

Maybe this is the one that will keep. From next week, our restrictions will be eased – reduced to tiers, one might say. But that doesn’t mean life will be easy. “Our tiers need to be made tougher,” Johnson told parliament. If you have tiers, prepare to beef them up.

Keir Starmer rose to point out that the previous tiers system, designed to avoid a national lockdown, had not entirely succeeded in that respect. He wanted to know if the government had done anything to make test-and-trace work better, or if it was now pinning all its hopes on vaccines.

Whatever Johnson was trying to say, it was a mute point

Johnson didn’t really engage with that question, though the accompanying paperwork revealed that test-and-trace was getting an extra £7 billion, taking its bill for the year to £22 billion. This is apparently equivalent to the cost of the Channel Tunnel. If Dido Harding had been in charge of that project, we would have ended up with a world-beating link to the Isle of Wight.

The prime minister thanked the Labour leader for offering support for the vaccination programme. “His support is one of those things that’s now you see it, now you don’t,” Johnson, a man whose middle names are “de Pfefell” and “Consistent,” noted.

The session continued and then, mid-answer, the prime minister went silent. We could see his mouth moving, but we couldn’t hear any words. “Have you pressed the button, prime minister?” the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, yelled. There was only silence. Whatever Johnson was trying to say, it was a mute point.

Exasperated, Hoyle suspended the session so that someone could phone Johnson and tell him how to turn the sound back on. For a man who had so many technology lessons when he was mayor of London, the prime minister seems particularly incompetent with such things.

When we came back, Johnson’s place had been taken by Matt Hancock, who was present in the chamber. It was the understudy’s moment to shine, and the Health Secretary made the most of it. He engaged with MPs’ questions, and explained the government’s thinking. This sketch may, on occasion, have been less than entirely complimentary about Hancock, but here he was a man across the detail, an image only flattered by the juxtaposition with his boss.

Later, Johnson joined us again for an evening press conference: tiers before bedtime. Speaking to the public, rather than MPs, he had found his level, with lots of talk of the cavalry over the horizon and oases at the end of the tunnel. Christmas was not cancelled, but was also not going to be the same as usual. “Tis the season to be jolly but it’s also the season to be jolly careful,” he said, sounding more like Tony Blackburn than Cicero.

A route out, then. Through the tunnel, over the horizon, to the oasis where the science has ridden to the rescue. But first, the tiers of a clown.

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