What is truth?

It depends upon what the meaning of booking a hotel room is

Artillery Row Sketch

The prime minister has made much of the tremendous pain that he has personally felt shutting pubs and telling people to stay at home. A man who saw himself as Captain FunTimes, compelled to ban bunfights and cancel Christmas. The tragedy.

But that was as nothing to the horror awaiting him on Tuesday. Now, we learn, Boris Johnson has become the prime minister who put a 10-year prison sentence on telling lies.

Imagine. What will it be next week? A national programme to make people comb their hair? Legislation requiring men to acknowledge their children?

The announcement came in parliament from the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, as he set out measures to stop disease crossing our borders. The Stable Doors (Bolting At A Measured Pace) Bill, to be introduced later this week, will require people coming from the riskiest countries to stay in government-mandated hotels for ten nights. This will cost travellers £1,750 each, which sounds like a lot, but feels cheap to anyone who has, say, paid £1,000 to use a chair for four days at Conservative conference. Possibly, if you’re used to paying extortionate room rates for the hour, this seems positively bargainous, but I digress.

There are big fines for travellers refusing to take Covid tests and failing to quarantine, and a 10-year prison sentence for people lying about which countries they’ve come from. Though presumably that won’t set you back £175 a night.

There is a section of the Tory Party that seems to believe Covid is a socialist plot to destroy the economy

There are already exemptions around the existing travel ban for essential journeys, and presumably when we see the legislation, there’ll be similar exemptions for essential lies. Off the top of the head, the sketch imagines these will include lies to: wives, mistresses, employers, party leaders, magazine proprietors, Democratic Unionists, women one has just met, voters, MPs, the press, Northern Irish businessmen, women one would like to meet, fishermen, hauliers and such categories of people as ministers shall add to the list following panicked calls from Downing Street.

As ever, in the session that followed Hancock’s statement, the government got a tougher time from Conservatives than from Labour. There is a section of the Tory Party that seems to believe Covid is a socialist plot to destroy the economy and weaken the nation’s moral fibre.

They were, however, somewhat more muted than in previous weeks. Perhaps the Covid Recovery Group was busy elsewhere, its scientists on the brink of a medical breakthrough. Or perhaps, given that many of them are, in general terms, in favour of keeping foreigners out, tight border controls aren’t the kinds of thing they can object to.

Their chairman, Mark Harper, was there, of course. “Policies are often easy to announce and difficult to end,” he observed. “When is this policy going to end, if ever?”

Hancock listened to this leaning forward, clutching his seat, staring at the floor, shaking his head slightly. Does Harper really imagine that any British government, let alone this one, wants to ban international travel for the rest of time? Does he actually, even in the terms of his question, believe that it would be harder to end a policy of mandatory quarantine than it has been to bring it in?

“Of course these measures, while necessary now, are not measures that can be in place permanently,” the Health Secretary told Harper, barely concealing the impatience in his voice.

We never find out exactly what it is that Harper, Swayne and chums believe the government’s secret goal to be

His suffering wasn’t yet complete, for he had yet to hear from Sir Desmond Swayne. Johnson treats Sir Desmond like a loveable uncle who’s given to making off-colour jokes. Sir Desmond seems to think of himself as a man who sees important truths that others miss. How does Hancock think of him? Well, he sat staring along the bench at his parliamentary colleague with all the affection people usually reserve for the sight of a disliked neighbour’s cat taking a crap in their window box. His hands were clasped around his knee, possibly to stop him hurling the nearest hard object. His foot turned slowly in the air, perhaps imagining kicking something or other very hard indeed.

Sir Desmond’s suspicion is that the government is shifting its targets and is no longer focused on protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed but instead… what? We never find out exactly what it is that Harper, Swayne and chums believe the government’s secret goal to be. Perhaps it really is a global conspiracy to keep us all at home for ever. Or perhaps, as Hancock patiently explained, it’s simply that the numbers of people in hospital is still really very high, something that may possibly be because the prime minister listens rather too much to backbench Tory MPs.

Although sometimes one of them has a point. It was Sir Edward Leigh who stood up to ask the big question on border controls: “Why didn’t we do this over a year ago? We are an island.”

Hancock didn’t look entirely unhappy at the question, but he didn’t quite answer it, or address Sir Edward’s suggestion that he might personally have liked to do more and sooner. When lying is illegal and the truth might embarrass your boss, it’s best to exercise your right to silence.

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