Feeling testy

Rules are for the rest of you

“I’m not as familiar with the works of Nicki Minaj as I probably should be,” Boris Johnson said, cautiously. Possibly he was wondering if she was a new Conservative MP that he’d forgotten about.

Minaj — could she be Cities of London and Westminster? No, that’s Nickie Aiken — had claimed that the Covid vaccine had caused her cousin’s friend’s testicles to swell up. That didn’t of course rule out her being a Tory MP — they’re a pretty odd bunch, and they certainly talk balls.

But if the prime minister was confused to find himself asked about a Trinidadian-American rapper’s cousin’s friend’s testicles on live television, it was a confusing day.

Johnson was giving the press conference, alongside Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, very much the Ice Cube and Dr Dre of public health policy, to set out the government’s “Autumn and Winter Plan” for Covid.

“In essence, we’re going to keep going,” Johnson had explained. “Be sensible, be responsible, wash your hands, use ventilation, consider wearing a face covering in crowded places with people that you don’t know, stay at home if you feel unwell.”

Unless, he didn’t add, you’re a Conservative MP. In which case you can do whatever you like.

A couple of hours earlier Sajid Javid had given a more detailed version of the same statement in the House of Commons. The Sketch has noted before that Tory MPs view public health rules as very much things for other less important people to worry about. So the health secretary’s words were punctuated, charmingly, by the sound of unmasked Conservatives coughing behind him.

When Javid got to the section about “wearing a face mask in crowded and enclosed spaces”, his words were greeted with an ironic cheer from the opposition benches. The Tories looked unmoved. We don’t know yet whether, as they seem to believe, their party allegiance makes them immune to disease, but it certainly seems to have left them incapable of feeling shame.

It was as though Hancock had groped his lover whilst telling the country to socially distance

In the questioning that followed, there were two themes. There were the civil libertarians, such as Sir Graham Brady, who said the government should be “trusting people to make decisions for themselves”, before sitting down again and showing why he personally should not enjoy that trust. And there were those who wanted to know why some people weren’t getting vaccinated. Again, it’s not an unfair point, but it would come better from someone not very obviously ignoring the public health advice he’s just been given.

The longer it went on, the odder it felt. Has a government ever before announced guidance while simultaneously flouting it on camera? Dominic Cummings may have imposed and then ignored lockdown rules, but he didn’t make a Zoom call to the BBC while driving up the A1.

Downing Street prepared for the announcement by releasing pictures of a crowded, maskless Cabinet meeting that morning, taking place in a building where last year nearly every member of staff got sick. It was as though in January Matt Hancock had decided to grope his lover while actually standing at the dispatch box telling the country to socially distance.

There was a genuine howl from the Tory benches when Javid suggested that tougher measures might be necessary if hospitals became overstretched. But the small act that an individual could do to stop the spread of disease was also too much to ask. Tough on lockdowns, tough on the things that might help avoid lockdowns.

Back at the press conference, Johnson was confident, as ever, that  tougher measures could be avoided. “People are being sensible and responsible,” he said. Not his people, obviously. Other people.

Chris Whitty reassured us that the country was being careful of its health. “Everybody’s taking measures,” he began, before remembering where he was, and correcting himself. “Well, lots of people are taking measures.”

In the Commons, the SNP’s Patricia Gibson had asked the health secretary why his own side was so confused about the mask guidance. “I believe we have been very clear on this issue,” Javid replied, a little testily. They have: rules are for the rest of you.

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