Good COP, bad COP

Why would our friends even want to give us Covid?

“I’m slightly concerned about the prime minister’s voice,” said Eleanor Laing, the deputy Speaker. We all were. Boris Johnson had by this stage croaked his way through a half-hour press conference and an hour of a statement in the House of Commons. What had begun the afternoon at “I think he might have a cold” had progressed to “more gravel than a Beaconsfield driveway”.

As it happened, it was a Nature’s Revenge day in the House of Commons, with statements on Covid and the climate summit. It tells you quite a lot about how things are going that the resurgence of a killer disease and the end of life on the planet are viewed by Johnson’s government as a pleasant distraction. A bomb had gone off as well, but it was in Liverpool, which is quite a long way away and full of Labour voters, so it was dealt with briefly in passing.

Nature has in particular been taking her vengeance on Parliament

Nature has in particular been taking her vengeance on Parliament, with the Covid infection rate four times higher than it is in the rest of the postcode. What has caused this terrible curse? How has this airborne respiratory virus spread so much more easily in this community more than any other? If only there were some clue. Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who invented the doctrine that you can’t get Covid from people you know, might have been able to tell us, but he neglected to go into the question.

The summary of his statement was that things are bad in Europe, but not bad here. In fact, they’re great here. We have a “world-leading vaccination programme”, “our booster programme is one of the most successful in the world”, and the vaccines are overseen by “our world-beating regulator” and overseen by “world-leading clinicians”. Of our world-beating test-and-trace programme there was, sadly, no mention.

Over in Downing Street, Johnson, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance had taken to the stage. There were graphs showing the UK infection rate to be, in Whitty’s words, “flat at a fairly high level”. Possibly this, too, is world-leading.

“History shows that we cannot afford to be complacent,” the prime minister told us, although his personal history shows you can get away with it for a remarkably long time. “We must remain vigilant.”

It was put to him that he had personally been rather less than vigilant on the infection-spreading front. “I wear a mask wherever the rules say that I should, and I urge everybody else to do the same,” he croaked, somewhat unconvincingly. “I think that is the responsible thing to do and I am going to continue to do it.” It’s unclear what he meant was responsible: wearing a mask, or wandering around a hospital without one while the staff repeatedly ask you to put one on, as he did last week.

The government’s approach, Johnson explained, was “to rely on people’s common sense, on people’s sense of personal responsibility to themselves and others.” This at least gives us a yardstick by which we should measure Jacob Rees-Mogg, defiantly maskless as he sat next to the prime minister in the Commons an hour later.

Perhaps they didn’t feel enough like coming out to support their leader to risk catching whatever it is that he’s got

By this stage we were discussing the planet. The chamber was largely empty of Tory MPs, which is unusual for a prime ministerial statement. Perhaps they were all isolating with Covid, no longer protected, after the recent outbreak of Conservative infighting, by the “convivial, fraternal spirit” which Rees-Mogg assured us wards off infection. Perhaps, fearing that their second jobs are about to be banned, they were all desperately trying to squeeze in a few more hours of consultancy. Or perhaps they didn’t feel enough like coming out to support their leader to risk catching whatever it is that he’s got.

COP 26, Johnson told us, had been a triumph, whatever else we might have heard. “It was a summit that many people predicted would fail, and a summit, I fear, that some quietly wanted to fail,” he said, in what was probably intended as a dig at naysayers on the Labour benches but could equally have been aimed at a chunk of his own MPs. The agreement on coal, widely dismissed as a climbdown, was in fact “a great achievement”.

Keir Starmer, unsurprisingly, took a different view, suggesting that Johnson’s “guileless boosterism” had led other countries to conclude that he’d celebrate whatever concessions they made, however weak.  The debate moved back and forth between these two positions without enlightening the rest of us. Good COP, bad COP, as it were. A notable moment came when Tory Sir Edward Leigh said out loud what many of his colleagues think, that voters care a lot more about their fuel bills this month than they do about the survival of the Great Barrier Reef in 50 years.

“Electorates around the world are now going to hold governments to account for the promises that they have made,” Johnson declared grandly towards the end. Although he must be hoping that, like the next wave of Covid, this is an idea that doesn’t reach these shores.

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