Two men and a Boris

Three is the magic number. Or six. We don’t know what the magic number is

They’re back! Into the wood-panelled briefing room they strode: Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and Boris Johnson. The three amigos. The three musketeers. The two wise men and a hanger-on.

Johnson came last. Secret agents, on walking into a room, instinctively scan for exits and threats. The prime minister does the same, his eyes shifting quickly right and left, on the lookout for angry husbands or outraged international lawyers.

They were here to tell us that it was time to get back to the office. No, hang on, that was last week. They were here to tell us that it was time to stop having fun. Whitty put up a graph that showed us pretty conclusively that some people have been having altogether too much fun, and so had been spreading the virus. Before we could all shout at our screens that we really hadn’t, he put up another graph to show who it was.

Like everything else, it’s the fault of the young people, specifically those aged 17 to 21. It turns out they’ve been mingling in large groups, though it’s not clear how many of these gatherings were protests about exam results.

Over to Johnson, to introduce us to our new lives. “I know that over time the rules have become quite complicated and confusing,” he began, with gentle understatement. There will now be curfews in areas of high disease prevalence, and extra health officers to ensure that pubs and restaurants are keeping to the rules. Over on Twitter, the usual suspects were kicking off about a police state, forgetting the basic guideline that if you can complain about a police state, you’re not in one.

It’s tough, when you’re a natural people-pleaser, to have to spend your time telling them things they don’t want to hear

That said, if I wanted to avoid putting people in mind of a dystopian horror, I would find a friendlier slogan than Johnson’s latest. “The Rule of Six” sounds like something you would be beaten for breaching in The Handmaid’s Tale.

From Monday, people will face arrest and fines if they gather in groups larger than six. If nothing else, Johnson has probably made it illegal for all his children to gather in one place.

The prime minister was very clear that he didn’t want to bring in these restrictions, but his hand had been forced: “With the best will in the world, people have not, I’m afraid, been following the guidelines.” Johnson had heard of one case where a man drove his sick wife from London to Durham because he feared she and he were going down with the virus. Though in fact that chap had been following the guidelines. But other people, ordinary people, people who weren’t senior Tories, those people had been breaking the guidelines, and not just in limited and specific ways. And that was a problem.

Johnson’s difficulty is that he’s not very good at being the bearer of bad news. It’s tough, when you’re a natural people-pleaser, to have to spend your time telling them things they don’t want to hear. The result is that he cannot suppress an instinct to brighten the news. For all his admiration of Winston Churchill, Johnson would never have been able to leave it at promising blood, sweat and tears. He’d have had to announce a doubling of sugar rations as well.

Would the furlough scheme be extended for those who can’t return to work, Jamie from Ayrshire asked. We know the actual answer to this, and Jamie wouldn’t have liked it. So Johnson skidded around the issue. “We’re going to continue to do everything we can,” he said. “Jobs such as yours should certainly be supported and protected.” Sadly, Jamie, this is not a promise you should attempt to take to the bank, unless you want to face some awkward questions of your own.

In the same vein, amongst the news of tighter rules we also got the promise of a vast new wave of promises about virus testing that would allow us all to live our normal lives. Johnson said it would be a passport to a normal life — a “laissez-passer”, he added, for the benefit of French viewers.

One of prime minister’s great gifts is his ability to communicate with the masses, to seek out the vivid image that grabs the mind. We can assume that he’s picked up the habit of referring to the testing programme as a “moonshot” from Dominic Cummings, a NASA obsessive. But the description of a cheap easy virus check as being like a pregnancy test is surely Johnson’s alone. Apart from anything else, it is probably only the prime minister who thinks of pregnancy tests as something taken daily.

The role of Whitty and Vallance in the press conference was to try to lasso Johnson whenever he overpromised and drag him back to grim reality. Asked if Christmas was cancelled, the prime minister couldn’t bear to break viewers’ hearts. “I’m still hopeful, as I’ve said before that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas,” he replied.

Whitty, closing the press conference, tried to walk that idea back: “It’s important that what we don’t do is pin ourselves to a date and say by this time this will be achieved.”

Johnson accepted the point. “Thanks very much Chris,” he said. “A very important dose of realism and common sense.” For a moment, his words hung there, a sober reminder of the difficult times we live in. And then he was off again. “But we remain extremely ambitious about the whole programme and I do think a lot of progress can be made in a short time.”

And before his handlers could grab him, he was free, running for the happy sunlit uplands, where the rule of six is a distant memory, and moonshots grow on trees.

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