The man who wasn’t Monday

True courage has no regard for personal reputation

Artillery Row Sketch

It’s never a good sign when a government minister starts reading out postcodes on the national news. A postcode lottery you don’t want to win being a grim business.

The message to residents of W7, N17, CR4, WS2, ME15, PR9, EN10 and GU21 was clear: “Remain indoors”. Given that they, like the rest of us, were already supposed to be doing that, it’s presumably upgraded to “Remain Indoors, But Really”. Stay inside, and stay away from everyone, except for the people who are going door to door down your street doing Covid tests.

Matt Hancock was explaining how the government is going about hunting the South African variant of Covid-19, which has now reached our shores. It sounded pretty grim, but although Hancock didn’t make it, it’s possible to put an optimistic spin on this. The government is planning to test 80,000 people in the affected areas. A year ago, it would have taken a fortnight or more to do that. Now it represents a fraction of daily capacity.

Combined with the acceleration of the vaccine roll-out, Hancock had plenty to look pleased about

It was a little under a year ago that a government official observed to me that there was something slightly worrying about the small number of Covid cases they had found: the lack of links between them. That suggested, the official said, that there were cases in between that they weren’t finding. With hindsight, what it probably suggested was that Covid was already far more widespread than any of us understood. Soon the government wouldn’t even have the testing capacity it needed for people seriously ill in hospital, let alone going door-to-door and testing on the off-chance.

This time, faced with cases of the South African variant whose chain of transmission they can’t follow, health officials can deliver the sort of response we were seeing in Asia last year.

Combined with the acceleration of the vaccine roll-out, Hancock had plenty to look pleased about, and he did, almost bouncing on the spot, hinting that he wanted to be generous with the oodles of spare vaccines he has found in his fridge. Suddenly counterparts the world over will be calling him up for a chat.

With these undoubted successes acknowledged, let us cross over to the House of Commons, where MPs were debating the flammable cladding that is, amazingly, still attached to quite a lot of buildings, three and a half years after 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. A disaster which, in addition to its human toll, almost sank a tottering Theresa May in the wake of the 2017 election. In other words, not a politically insignificant thing. A monumental private tragedy for its victims and their families, and yet here we, and they, still are.

Judging by his absence, maybe the Housing Secretary is unaware of the cladding scandal

“I think the whole House would agree that we need a comprehensive and speedy solution,” Felicity Buchan, the Conservative MP for Kensington, said. Usually when an MP says the whole House would agree on something, it is at best an exaggeration and at worst an outright lie, but this time it was true. The biggest objection in the debate, advanced by a few of the more gung-ho Tories, was that it was poor form of Labour to raise the subject. But if dangerous housing conditions aren’t a fit subject for discussion in parliament, then really, what is?

The most revealing contribution to the debate came from Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary. For all that his colleagues agreed the subject was a vital one, Jenrick was absent.

In his place, junior ministers Chris Pincher and Eddie Hughes – who has been in the job just 15 days – were sent out to explain that the government was doing all it could. They did their best. “There is no quick fix,” Pincher told us, self-evidently.

But on a day when we saw what the government can, eventually, manage if it really wants to, Jenrick’s failure to turn up left the thought that perhaps part of the problem was a lack of willpower.

Maybe the Housing Secretary is unaware of the cladding scandal. After all, he has in the last month felt able to set out his plans to defend Britain’s statues from the hordes of “woke warriors” he believes to be stalking the land. One would imagine that a secretary of state would only turn to the question of protecting bits of marble once he was absolutely sure that actual flesh and blood humans were safe to go to bed.

The alternative would be that Jenrick is more interested in generating positive coverage in the Sunday Telegraph than in dealing with his department’s biggest problem. As so often in Boris Johnson’s administration, appalling ignorance is the more charitable explanation that the alternative, horrifying cynicism.

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