“Do you want to do hugging first?” Boris Johnson asked, in a low voice. The lights were dim, the windows covered. It was just the three of them. “Who’s doing hugging?”
“Er,” Chris Whitty paused, but then remembered his duty. “I’ll take that, take that on.”
We were in the government’s new media bunker, a room in 9 Downing Street which has been remodelled at the bargain price of just £2.6 million. It’s an odd mix of ultra-modern TV set and original wood panels. Whitty, Johnson and Sir Patrick Vallance were behind wooden lecterns. The result was something that looked like a game show, but a fogey-ish one, where contestants answer questions on the works of John Donne, and the Charter of the Forest. Possibly one on BBC Four.
You could tell that it wasn’t a BBC show, though, because of the flags. Huge union jacks hung behind the prime minister. They were so big you could have hidden someone in them if you needed to. Say if your wife had come home unexpectedly. Handily, the lectern also conceals whether your trousers are done up, or indeed if they’re on at all.
Back to the hugging. The prime minister was here to celebrate how well everything was going. It was all going terribly well. Chris Whitty, the bald one on the left, had some graphs to show us just how well. You’d think they could have spent a bit of that £2.6 million investigating whether it was possible to produce readable graphs in Excel. I’m pretty sure that for, say, £0.6 million someone would have been willing to show them how to enlarge fonts.
You could tell that it wasn’t a BBC show, though, because of the flags
Whitty had one pair of graphs designed to show us that the highest-risk groups of people had all now pretty much been vaccinated. It was impressive, but also appalling. Was that 65,000 Covid death among the over-80s? It rather looked like it. Another 25,000 if you included the over-70s? That feels like an awful lot, especially when you looked at the next graph and saw that these groups had experienced the lowest levels of infection.
But look, the point isn’t what happened in your gran’s care home last year, or indeed last month. The point is that now you can go out and have a certain amount of fun. “I will be able to play tennis, for instance,” Johnson cheerily told us. This will come as a great relief at Conservative Headquarters, where they have already cashed the cheques from the donors who have paid for matches with the prime minister.
There weren’t many questions, and no one asked the prime minister about Sunday’s revelations of his four-year affair with Jennifer Arcuri. Somehow, a press conference about the virus didn’t seem like the place. It’s this odd air of seriousness that has led Number 10 to think that televising more press briefings will work well for them. That’s why they’ve built this room.
But that air doesn’t carry over to the regular press briefings, and had the cameras been around for the session at midday, they would have carried quite a long discussion about the prime minister’s frenzied love life. The briefings are carried out over a muted conference call, so there is no way of knowing how many reporters laughed loudly when the press secretary, Allegra Stratton, told the briefing that Johnson “does believe in the wider principles of integrity and honesty” and “acts with integrity and honesty”. But my neighbours will be able to confirm there was at least one.
Back in his televised briefing, Johnson was asked if he could guarantee there would be no more lockdowns. He can’t, of course, but that didn’t stop him replying, “yes … but with two very important provisos.” In the end, he’s a boy who can’t say No.
The hugging question was whether vaccinated pensioners could cuddle their grandchildren yet. The answer was no.
The press conference ended soon after that. It was a quickie, barely lasting half an hour. Possibly Johnson had another engagement, standing next to Princess Anne, or something similar.
“Thank you all very much, see you next time,” he said, and off he scuttled, not even stopping to check he had both his socks.
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