Artillery Row Sketch

Unquestionably Whitty and Vallance

The outlook is grey, no questions

It’s always tricky when the band starts to split. The unspoken question is who’s going to turn out to be John, and who’s Ringo?

We don’t know what’s behind the split in the Daily Press Conference Three. Temporary creative differences? Does Boris, the frontman, want to focus on his much-delayed solo concept album, “Brexit”?

Or are Chris and Patrick, rumoured to be the real geniuses, tired of being overshadowed and sick of the fact that no one can remember which of them is which? That was certainly the impression one got from Monday’s “data briefing”. The organ grinders had given the monkey the day off. The asylum had retaken control from the lunatic.

There were so many questions (though also, no questions at all), starting with: where the hell were they?

The press conferences usually come from a dining room on one of the top floors of Downing Street, a slightly shabby room when you’re in it, that never manages to catch the light, but still conveys some sense that this might be the sort of place in which Her Majesty might choose to put a Government. Now Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty were sitting in a much more modern room, with a huge white-on-grey crest behind them. One sensed the hand of a graphic designer.

This wasn’t any of the usual Downing Street rooms. Was it Downing Street at all? Was this Dominic Cummings’s new “NASA-Style Mission Control”? Or are we now being governed from a temporary office suite in the West Midlands?

“Good morning everybody,” began Whitty – or was it Vallance? But who was “everybody”? Were there other people in the room? They seemed to be addressing somebody, rather than looking down the camera. Perhaps they’d summoned the Cabinet to give them their instructions. Perhaps recalcitrant Tory MPs had been lured there, wherever there was, and then tied up. (“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Sir Graham, I expect you to vote!”)

“I’m Patrick Vallance,” Vallance, for it was he, continued. (It’s actually easy to tell: Vallance is the bald one on the left, and Whitty is the bald one on the right.)

They had come to wherever they were to give us, whoever we were, the bad news. Infections were rising, and everything was just going to get worse. “The next slide is not a prediction,” Vallance, or possibly Whitty, said at one point. Peter Snow would have told us it was just a bit of fun, but this really wasn’t any fun, showing as it did the country hitting 50,000 infections – and 200 deaths a day – within three weeks .

“Could we have the next slide please?” each of them would say, every so often, to someone, somewhere, who was running the PowerPoint. Data visualisers continue to be having a good war.

The Government has quite enough to worry about without dealing with busybodies like you

Perhaps you’d heard some good things about the virus situation. Whitty and Vallance were here, wherever here was to tell you, whoever you were, that those things weren’t true. There was only bad news, and if everyone didn’t do whatever the government was going to tell them to do, the news would be a lot worse. “The seasons are against us,” Whitty, or perhaps Vallance, explained. I mean, we’re British. The seasons are always against us.

“Science will in due course ride to our rescue,” probably-Whitty remarked, and at that point the ear expected to hear Johnson chiming in with a promise that it would be soon, next week, maybe even tomorrow. In his absence, the band can’t really reach those notes any more.

Maybe you have questions. You might be wondering if the virus is something that can be handled without another lockdown. Or you might be wondering whether, if things are this much of a problem, it was such a good idea to tell everyone to get into restaurants and back on the trains. Perhaps you’d like to know if it’s really the case that no one realised that schools going back might create a bit of extra demand for testing. Well, tough. The Government has quite enough to worry about without dealing with busybodies like you. What you need to do now is keep quiet and do what you’re told.

And what are we being told to do? For that, we have to wait until later today, when we will see the first fruits of Johnson’s time in the studio. Maybe it will be his “Imagine”, inviting us to picture a better world that we can reach, if only we try. But on the basis of the recent rumours out of Downing Street, it might be “Taxman”.

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