You’re worried about the rate of infection in Covid hotspot areas. So what would you do? A) Get in touch with local leaders and health chiefs to agree extra local restrictions. B) Nothing and hope it goes away. Or C) Slip out some new guidance on the government website when no one is looking on a Friday night and express total surprise when local journalists only discover it three or four days later.
If you’re Matt Hancock, you “throw a sickie”. You’ve had enough punishment beatings in the House of Commons to last several ministerial careers and you’ve no intention of showing up for another. So it was left to the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, to answer an urgent question from the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, about the new guidance for eight areas of the country. Fair to say, that’s an hour of Zahawi’s life that will have left him feeling more than a little under the weather.
“Let’s keep the politics out of this,” he began. Some hope. It was like this. The prime minister had mentioned as an aside in a press conference on 14 May that just because we were at step 3 on the roadmap on lockdown, it didn’t mean that people should stop being cautious. And any fool could see that what he really meant was that people should not travel in or out of the eight designated hotspots, which was the guidance put out on the government website a week later. So if the government was guilty of anything, it was that the techies responsible for uploading official advice had been a little slow on the uptake.
Understandably, this answer didn’t impress many MPs on either side of the house, with many Tories clearly fed up that their constituencies had been put into regional lockdown without any consultation with them, public health officials and local authorities. And the angrier they got, the more Zahawi found himself unable to stop digging himself in deeper. Of course people could travel to and from Covid hotspots, providing they only did it if it was for something essential. Such as going to visit a friend outdoors over the half-term break.
Only that wasn’t anything like the guidance on the government website, Ashworth and others pointed out. The official line was that essential travel did not include going to visit a few mates in their garden. And it was also completely opaque on whether travelling to school or work in an affected area counted as essential. When pressed on this last point by the Lib Dem Munira Wilson, Zahawi sounded shifty and evaded the question. Largely because he was just as in the dark as everyone else on this.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper tried to join the dots for him. Were people from Leicester, Bolton and the other six areas allowed to go on holiday to countries, such as Portugal, that were on the green list? And wasn’t the fundamental problem that the government had created the fiasco for itself by failing to put India on the travel red list until far too late in the day? Zahawi opened and closed his mouth but nothing coherent came out.
But it was the Tory MPs who inflicted the most damage. Though a few mates tried to come to his rescue by praising the vaccine rollout, most could barely contain their anger at the levels of incompetence on view. They certainly had no recollection of the prime minister effectively imposing regional lockdowns on 14 May and were buggered if they would let their constituents be treated with such disrespect. The guidance is just guidance, Zahawi said, desperate to appease them. So people were free to ignore it if they felt like it. Though obviously he would rather they didn’t. Was that more or less clear? It was the new take-it-or-leave-it lockdown. He couldn’t have looked more relieved if he had tried when the speaker finally called time on his ordeal.
Still, the vaccines minister wasn’t the only one having a bad day. In between trying to prepare for a prime minister’s questions on Wednesday that could have some Classic Dom shaped curve balls, Boris Johnson was trying to explain both why the report into Islamophobia in the Tory party wasn’t a whitewash and why he would never have described Muslim women in burqas as letterboxes if he had known he was going to become prime minister. Because it’s fine to splatter casual racism across the comment pages of the Daily Telegraph. Just not when you’re sitting in Downing Street. Then you have to keep your thoughts to yourself and say nothing.