“The light of dawn is on the horizon, it’s the moment to stand firm until morning.” Words like that can only mean a Downing Street press conference, whose scripts seem to be assembled from off-cuts of 1970s made-for-television disaster movies.
On Monday, the role of “struggling Health Secretary” was played by Matt Hancock. You might know him from such press conferences as “Dominic Cummings followed the rules” and “Test-and-Trace is a triumph”.
He had some news: students are going to be tested for coronavirus en masse before they’re sent home. And he had a warning: a third of people who test positive display no symptoms. And he wanted to tell us that there were still many hackneyed phrases between us and the end of the tunnel. Or, as he put it, “while we can let up a little, we can’t afford to let up a lot.”
The government has decreed there is to be neither Netflix nor chill for some time to come
He was joined by the brilliantly named General Sir Gordon Messenger. Asked about test-and-trace, Sir Gordon replied that he had only been in the job for three weeks. You don’t become vice-chief of the defence staff without learning a thing or two about covering your rear. The general also got the job of telling us that mass testing may not be available to every Tier 3 area this year. Perhaps Hancock was hoping that Sir Gordon will absorb some flak, but that depends. When people hear this bad news, they won’t necessarily shoot Messenger.
When it came to questions from the public, Ella in Southampton wanted to meet up with her long-term boyfriend, but they don’t live together. “Can we see each other indoors, or can we only see each other outdoors?”
It was a heartbreaking question. This is a family-friendly sketch, so let us just say that separated couples would like to know if kissing and special hugging is banned until Christmas. Some will have watched the press conference, fingers crossed. Standing firm until morning? I bet.
There are lots of reasons why Lockdown 2 is proving much tougher than Lockdown 1, but a big one is that baby, it’s cold outside. Despite that, however frightful the weather or delightful the fire, the government has decreed there is to be neither Netflix nor chill for some time to come.
Hancock, however, couldn’t bring himself to say this outright.
“The rules about exactly what is permitted in each of the tiers is on the gov.uk website,” he began. “The rule of six applies outdoors, but indoors you should only be mixing with people who are in your household. I hope that answers the question. I would urge you to go and look on the government website if you’ve got any specific query.”
The gov.uk guidance might as well have been drawn up by the Vatican
But if Ella could find the answer she wanted on a government website, she wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of recording a question for the Health Secretary. As she had done, the least she deserved was a straight answer: no, your boyfriend can’t come over. That is the rule Hancock has made, but he lacked the courage to say it. For some reason he wouldn’t grapple with it.
He did say that he understood the situation was difficult for couples who lived apart, and added that there was “specific provision” for them, though there is no mention of this on the gov.uk website, and – this sketch is nothing if not rigorous in its research – the Department of Health was unable to explain what he meant.
Indeed, there is no acknowledgement at all in the guidance that there are lots of people in the country who have significant relationships with people that they don’t live with. For all its engagement with the real lives of real people, it might as well have been drawn up by the Vatican, and under the last Pope, not the current easygoing, Instagram accounting regime…
The problem with remote press conferences is that they deaden questions. With journalists limited, separated and muted, it’s hard to push on an issue. It really makes a difference. The whole thing becomes virtual and frustrating and unreal and somehow cheapened and unsatisfying. It bears no comparison at all to anything else Matt Hancock is making the rules up about as he goes.
Theresa May used to ignore questions, but could be pushed into engaging if, at the end of her answer, everyone shouted the key bit again. The answers she would give at that point were generally the only bits worth writing down.
If these press conferences were conducted as usual, even those of us who weren’t called to ask a question would feel able to yell when the answers weren’t coming. “What about shagging, Health Secretary?” Sorry, forgot where I was. “What about kissing, Health Secretary?” Perhaps then he might have answered the important and reasonable question he had been asked.
Is the Health Secretary embarrassed about sex? Does he know where babies come from? There is a story told about Hancock’s predecessor Norman Fowler that, during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, he had to be briefed about oral sex, and replied, eventually: “Crikey!” (Fowler insists that this was in response to statistics about its prevalence, rather than its existence at all.)
Perhaps Boris Johnson could have a word. “You see, Matt, when a man loves a woman very much, or when he’s just met her but she looks like a goer…”
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