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C ometh the hour, cometh the man. In these exceptionally grim times we’re all – Boris Johnson included – looking for a saviour to rise from these streets. And right now that salvation appears to be the England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty. Just about the only person left whom anyone can trust to tell the country the naked truth about coronavirus.
For months now, we’ve grown used to ministers being sent out on the morning media round to sell the latest U-turn. But sometime over the weekend, someone in Downing Street’s communications team realised many people tended not to take ministers all that seriously. They would hear the horrifying death statistics and still come up with a way of adapting lockdown guidance to their own convenience. And after Dominic Cummings got away with ignoring the rules during the first lockdown, who could really blame them. The rules were seen as an aspiration, not a binding necessity.
But with the NHS close to overload and no sign of a reduction in cases, it was no time to try and get by with yet another appearance from Door Matt Hancock. Or even the prime minister. Especially not the prime minister. What was needed was someone with credibility. So for the first – and almost certainly not the last – time, the CMO was sent out. And Whitty more than delivered. In the early days of the pandemic, he had appeared somewhat overawed by Boris and sometimes looked like his stooge. Now, though, he has found his voice. And his silence when required.
He didn’t exactly say ministers had got it wrong again by introducing a lockdown that did not go far enough, because that had been a decision for the government. But he did say we were entering the most crucial weeks of the pandemic and – with another U-turn on the guidance almost inevitable in the coming days – it was best to get sensible precautions in early. The message was clear: if you can’t bring yourself to trust the politicians, then at least listen to the country’s top medic.
Certainly no one much was tuning in to Rishi Sunak’s economic statement in the Commons later that day. Hard to believe, but he was the future once: the chancellor laden with praise for his reaction to the coronavirus and widely tipped as Johnson’s likely successor. But in recent months, much of the stardust has washed off. Partly because he made the wrong call in urging people to return to work too soon, but mostly because he increasingly resembles a desperate huckster writing cheques with no idea whether they can be cashed.
Sunak has been oddly quiet in the past six weeks. While countless ministerial colleagues have had to explain the broken promises over Christmas and the failure of the tiering system, Rishi has managed to avoid doing anything other than to promise another £4.6bn of help in a 90-second Twitter video. And he was at pains to make clear that he had nothing new to say today. Instead he ran through the money he had already promised – with still no help for 3 million self-employed – before saying that the UK economy would get worse before it got better. Which would come as little relief to the 800,000 who have already lost their jobs and the hundreds of thousands more facing unemployment. It was almost as if Sunak was distancing himself as far as possible from the economy he was meant to run.
Understandably, his non-statement left MPs of all parties unimpressed. The shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, observed that an update was supposed to include something new, while several Tories expressed their reservations that enough was being done to help the hospitality industry. Just about the first time Rishi has been criticised by fellow Tories. Most tragic of all were the DUP’s Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley, who responded to Sunak’s Brexit sunny uplands coda with reports of empty supermarket shelves. Shame it took them this long to realise that Johnson’s Brexit deal was never designed with Northern Ireland in mind.
The day was meant to end on an upbeat note with Door Matt’s press conference on the vaccine rollout but it felt somewhat anticlimactic. Not because it was bad news the health secretary had reiterated his commitment to vaccinate 14 million of the most vulnerable people by 15 February – far from it, to do so would be remarkable, but because it was Hancock giving the assurances. Over the past 10 months he has failed to deliver on so many promises, it was hard not to gear yourself up for further disappointment.
Hancock just ignored a question over whether Christmas had made things worse, before suggesting it was perfectly OK to take a 14-mile round walk to go exercise somewhere. Which is now presumably the government’s official account of the prime minister’s controversial Sunday expedition to cycle in the Olympic Park, which Door Matt loyally repeated with no regard to how stupid it made him look. He also avoided questions on further lockdown restrictions and ruled out removing childcare bubbles. So that almost certainly means they will be gone by the end of the week.
Where was Whitty when you needed him? If he’d been giving the press briefing it might have at least sounded vaguely plausible. Even the bit about Boris’s bike ride. On second thoughts, skip that bit.