It wasn’t the cheeriest of Jonathan Van-Tam’s public appearances. Normally the sight of the deputy chief medical officer presiding over a Downing Street press conference at which no politicians are present is somewhat reassuring. He is a man to whom most of us would entrust our lives. In fact we already have. But this time, not so much. It wasn’t yet time for doom and gloom about the Omicron – the new Nu – variant, he said. Yet.
Nor was it time for people to panic at this stage. At this stage. Clearly, he reckoned there might well be a moment for us all to panic. Though he was hazy on the details of what we should do if and when such a time arose. Should we all break into hospital pharmacies to help ourselves to doses of the booster vaccine? Or should we tie down Boris Johnson and force him to wear a mask at all times? Or just, as in the 1960s, sit under the kitchen table and wait for Armageddon?
Perhaps sensing that he could have chosen his words better, he resorted to one of his football analogies. It was like this. The fight against Covid had started as an 11-a-side contest, but the arrival of the Delta variant had meant we had a couple of injuries and had had had to use two substitutes. Now with the appearance of Omicron, we had picked up a couple of yellow cards. The trick was somehow to fight hard without getting anyone sent off. Great. Not only did we only have one sub left to use, but two of our players would have to play within themselves as they were in danger of getting a red. If this was JVT being upbeat, I’d hate to see him when he’s depressed.
Still, Sajid Javid sounded a little more optimistic when, moments later, after first running through some of the announcements on travel and masks that he had already announced last week, he went on to tell the Commons the government would be adopting all the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation. Booster jabs would be available to all those over the age of 18, the gap between second vaccination and boosters would be reduced from five months to three, and 12- to 15-year-olds would be getting a second dose. And if the Omicron variant turned out to be no worse than Delta, then all sanctions would be removed.
With Jonathan Ashworth currently recovering at home from Covid, it was left to the shadow junior health minister, Rosena Allin-Khan, to reply for Labour. Whether it was the possibility of a promotion in the ongoing Schrödinger’s shadow cabinet reshuffle that was both happening and not happening – at the very least, it looked like an act of unconscious aggression-aggression on Keir Starmer’s part to have allowed the possibility of a reshuffle to overshadow Angela Rayner’s speech on changes to MPs’ behaviour and second jobs – or just that Allin-Khan was having a bad day, she chose to go in studs up.
The government had behaved hopelessly, she said. No one was safe, until we were all safe, so why had the UK been so slow to provide vaccines for developing countries? And why was there no pre-departure PCR testing for people travelling to this country? The wearing of masks ought to be extended to hospitality settings – Boris Johnson should never be seen without one – and the health secretary should be doing more to provide more support for those who are self-isolating. She made it sound as if the government were entirely responsible for the spread of the Omicron variant. It has many failings, but that was a bit of a push.
Javid acted as if he was more saddened than hurt by Allin-Khan’s remarks. The UK was doing more to supply vaccines to other countries than anyone else. This wasn’t true, of course, but no one bothered to contradict him. He also insisted that the rules on masks and travel represented a balanced reaction. Balanced, as in having found a happy medium that would just about be acceptable to all wings of the Tory party. And he just ignored the SNP’s demands both for travellers to take a PCR test on the eighth day and self-isolate until the result came back negative and for the government to work with the devolved administrations.
Thereafter, the session divided along predictable lines. Labour mostly queried whether masks should be made more widespread and if the government had the capability to deliver 500,000 booster jabs a day. Saj hadn’t a clue, but just said yes to keep them off his back. The Tories fell broadly into two camps. First there was Matt Hancock in a world of his own. Door Matt has forgotten his own embarrassment – even if the rest of us are suffering because we can’t erase the memory of the CCTV footage – and believes he is a certainty for promotion in the near future. He merely congratulated the health secretary for having done exactly what he would have done. Saj was just treading in the footsteps of giants.
Then there were the more sceptical Tories, led by the maskless Mark Harper, Andrew Bridgen, Desmond Swayne and Richard Drax, who behave as if the government has deliberately created the Omicron variant merely so that it can introduce more restrictions to annoy the libertarian fringe. They wanted assurances that masks were for wimps, that no further infringements of their right to kill people would be applied even if everyone died, and a guarantee that everything would return to normal within three weeks.
Javid merely shrugged. The Commons would get a vote tomorrow after the new regulations had already become law. He couldn’t say fairer than that. And if MPs weren’t happy with what the government chose to do in three weeks’ time, they’d have to recall parliament over Xmas. Good luck with that.
The health secretary tried to sound smooth and urbane, but there was a brittleness to him. Underneath the water he was paddling hard. JVT had been right. It wasn’t time to panic at this stage. But he couldn’t rule out the possibility that it might be soon.
A Farewell to Calm by John Crace is published by Guardian Faber, price £9.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
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