Priti Patel adjusts her face mask outside St Thomas' Hospital on 18 January 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Hard science is Priti difficult

Getting schooled by the facts of life

Artillery Row Sketch

Displacement activity, psychologists tell us, comes when we can’t do the things we really want to – if you can imagine that – or when we experience conflicting impulses. Instead of confronting the problem facing us, we do something that isn’t really related to our problem.

There’s a lot of it in politics at the moment. Tuesday saw the British death toll from Covid-19 move past 100,000. A quarter of those have come in the past four weeks. There are nearly 40,000 people in hospital with the virus. One in 10 is on a ventilator.

But all this got little mention in Parliament, even though politics is part of the reason those numbers are so high. Watching the chamber, it felt like business as usual.

A year after coronavirus arrived on our shores, the government is starting to wonder whether it might be time to tighten things up

Priti Patel, who as Home Secretary is very much in favour of displacement activity – at least when it comes to illegal immigrants – had been summoned to discuss border policy. A year after coronavirus arrived on our shores, the government is starting to wonder whether it might be time to tighten things up a touch at the frontier. As ever, ministers know what they have to do, they just can’t face doing it. One imagines that their desks are really tidy at the moment, the grout in their bathrooms scrubbed until it sparkles.

Labour had taken advantage of the government prevarication to get Patel to come in and ask her tricky questions. The SNP’s Joanna Cherry got in the best line, asking why “a Home Secretary previously so obsessed with stopping people from entering the country and deporting those already here should have taken so long to properly address Covid protections at the border.”

The Home Secretary insisted that for the last 12 months “the government has had a comprehensive strategy for public health measures at the border.” This was, if anything, too modest: as she went on to explain, the government has had at least eight different strategies in that time.

Patel was followed by Nick Gibb, there to answer a question on the reopening of schools. Gavin Williamson, still somehow the Education Secretary, was unavailable. But Gibb has been an education minister through five secretaries of state and three prime ministers. He does at least know his subject.

Labour had got him in to talk about when schools might reopen. This served two purposes for them. Boris Johnson had left the impression that it might be mid-February, but that is looking increasingly unlikely, so it is a reasonable thing to ask about. More importantly, questions about the lockdown provide an opportunity for Tory MPs to be mean to their leader.

Loyal Tories have been getting terribly worked up at Labour over its call for schools to be reopened first when lockdown lifts. “Labour’s main strategy in the pandemic seems to be calling for things the government has already done or said we’ll do,” Amanda Milling, the Conservative Chair, said on Twitter.

Surely no one now struggles to visualise Johnson going back on his word

It’s possible that Milling doesn’t follow politics closely, so she may be shocked to learn that “Boris said he’ll do something” now carries almost as little weight among the sections of the public that the prime minister hasn’t slept with as it always did with those he has. Let’s just say that surely no one now struggles to visualise Johnson going back on his word.

As for anyone suggesting that it’s impossible to imagine the government reopening, say, pubs before it does the same with schools, the sketch can only assume that they’ve been drunk since last July.

But Milling was displacing. When your complaint is that Labour is persistently a fortnight ahead of your party on policy response, your problem isn’t really with the opposition.

And the questions to Gibb revealed the government’s bigger problem. While Labour MPs kept asking when poorer children in their constituencies would get laptops, Tories were questioning the entire basis of the policy.

They said it in different ways: Mark Harper asked about criteria for reopening; Steve Baker wanted a cost-benefit analysis of keeping schools closed; Huw Merriman said once the elderly had been vaccinated schools ought to open. But the direction of pressure was clear.

There were voices in the other direction, too, notably from Neil O’Brien and Michael Fabricant. It has come to something that Fabricant, who reminded his colleagues of the death toll, is now the voice of scientific reason in the Conservative Party.

O’Brien has made a name for himself attacking commentators who peddle false science to oppose lockdown. Worthy though this is, it may be his own form of displacement activity: the group of people he is more reluctant to call out sit on his own benches in the Commons.

The reason the schools are shut is that hospitals are close to being overwhelmed. The reason hospitals are close to being overwhelmed is that the virus is so widespread. The reason the virus is so widespread is that the government locked down too late and lifted restrictions too early. And part of the reason Johnson behaved that way is that he spent too much time last year listening to Tory MPs.

It’s no surprise they’d rather do other things than talk about the dead.

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