No No Nadhim

With a Johnson lockdown easing, terms & conditions apply

And so to the Commons, where Nadhim Zahawi was answering questions on the government’s new virus strategy. The government, aware of the increasing unpopularity of lockdown, has gone for the wizard wheeze of introducing local lockdowns, but not telling anyone.

It’s a very Boris Johnson approach, in that it avoids saying things people don’t want to hear, and also in that it seems likely to be followed in due course by stricter measures that might otherwise have been avoided.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s health spokesman, wanted to know why the government had changed the Covid advice for two million people, but omitted to mention it to anyone. The new guidance was put on a government website on Friday evening, but it was three days before anyone noticed.

It’s a balls-up, of course. But equally of course, the government can’t admit that. So Zahawi, the Vaccines Minister, arrived in the Commons on Tuesday to pretend that this was all part of a strategy. Boris Johnson had announced all this two weeks ago, he explained, except for quite a lot of it. There was nothing new about it, although quite a few things were different. “We are always looking to see how we can communicate more effectively with local authorities,” he said, not adding “or indeed at all.”

Ashworth usually brings to these things the weary air of a geography teacher taking detention. On Tuesday, he was furious, as though one of the class had put superglue on his chair. His constituency, in Leicester, has been one of those worst hit by Covid, and is on the list of places that turn out to be under new restrictions. “Can the minister understand how upsetting, how insulting, it is to have new restrictions imposed on us – local lockdowns by stealth, by the back door – without the secretary of state even having the courtesy to come and tell us?” he asked.

He had other questions as well, questions of detail about which guidance people should be following, and what it meant for half-term next week, or for people who have weddings planned. But Zahawi ignored them, and so shall we.

Zahawi replied that he’d spoken to the mayors of the affected areas earlier “and the one thing I would urge is that we all work together and take the politics out of this”. That’s the sort of thing people say when they’ve spent the morning being shouted at. He said it a couple more times in the session, though it seemed to be mainly directed at Labour MPs who were complaining, not to Shaun Bailey, Tory MP for West Bromwich West, who believed that the vaccine programme vindicated Brexit. Perhaps Zahawi only wanted bits of the politics taken out of it.

For most of the session, he swerved the questions about what rules, if any, had changed, as they came from Labour MPs. In what is surely a preview of the coming inquiry, questions about lockdown detail yielded answers about how well the vaccine was going.

Nothing has changed, except the parts that have

Things got a little trickier when Tories asked about reports that vaccinated people will still have to isolate if they’ve come into contact with people who’ve tested positive. Mark Harper, lockdown-doubter-in-chief, wanted an assurance that this wasn’t so, and he didn’t get it. Vaccinated people could still be infected, Zahawi said.

The real danger came towards the end of the session. Chris Green represents Bolton West, and is a Tory. He was also fuming. The guidance was, he said “a matter of life and death”. Communications were “vital”. He went on: “compliance follows confidence, which in turn follows competence.” It was clear that he didn’t think he’d seen much of any of these qualities in recent days. He asked if Bolton Council had been consulted about the new rules.

Zahawi replied that Johnson had dealt with all this earlier in the month. Green didn’t look happy.

Yvette Cooper was up next, and came out swinging. “This statement is utterly chaotic and completely confused,” she began. Could people go to weddings? Could they travel? “Exercise caution and be careful,” came the less-than-clear response.

There was another Tory, Jason McCartney, whose Colne Valley seat is also affected. Could people travel in half term, he wanted to know. Would hotels and restaurants get financial help?

Well, Zahawi said, pubs and hotels could still operate under the rules. Although, he didn’t say, the guidance rather implied that no one should visit them.

Anthony Higginbotham, Tory MP for Burnley, came right back: “What we need now more than ever before is clear communication from the government, so that residents of Burnley, Blackburn and Bolton know exactly what is expected of them.”

He didn’t get it. “As I have made clear on a number of occasions,” Zahawi replied. “People have to be careful and vigilant.”

That was it. Nothing has changed, except the parts that have. The rules are the same everywhere, although in some ways they’re not. You can travel, but perhaps you shouldn’t. You can meet indoors, but you should meet outdoors. You can open your café, but please avoid having customers. We’re not saying “Don’t”, we’re just saying “Must you?”

Perhaps this will be how it is for all of us in June: Johnson in Parliament announcing the Great Unlockdown, and a government website quietly explaining that terms and conditions apply.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover