He may not be able to deliver enough PPE (or enough ‘care’ badges), but our health secretary sure can deliver a sultry presser
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news that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, used Friday morning to announce a “six-point battle plan” stirs memories of yore – Thursday afternoon – when the supply prime minister, Dominic Raab, announced his “five tests”. Indeed, those five tests themselves felt like the twitch of a phantom limb, redolent of the time Hancock announced his “five pillars”. Five pillars – like Islam, or the lost Temple of Cybele in Rome, or a Floridian McMansion where the contractor went bust halfway through completing the portico.
You don’t hear a whole lot about Matt’s five pillars these days, though the announcement of them did the job at the time. On Wednesday, Hancock drew attention away from the desperate shortage of PPE in care homes by re-announcing an NHS-style badge for those who work in care. Alas, in a development best described as ironicidal, the care badge website then swiftly ran into difficulties, leaving visitors greeted with the news that there was now a shortage of care badges. Until production is “ramped up”, it’s hard not to conclude that the chief success of the care badge was to form a psychic shield around the health secretary. It will, however, take more than a badge if he doesn’t hit his 100,000 tests a day target for the end of April, having already missed the 25,000-a-day target for the middle of the month.
Can you recall if the 100,000 tests was ever technically a pillar? It all feels beyond living memory. If you told me he had announced them sometime in the mid-Cretaceous period, staring soulfully into the camera even as a T-Rex pursued him, I’d believe you. In fact, it was a fortnight ago.
Still, don’t take the above as an unfavourable review of the specific energy Hancock brings to the daily Downing Street press conferences. I personally respect the way he treats each one like the James Blunt video for You’re Beautiful, delivering his painful truths right down the barrel. Just leaves it all on the stage. If you honestly can’t hear another word of one of these things, I’d recommend watching them with the sound down and Blunt whacked up to 11 – the pandemic equivalent of getting your test match footage from Sky but the commentary off the radio.
Naturally, this type of artiste always divides the critics. Even so it was very disappointing recently to learn that one No 10 official had told the Sunday Times’s Tim Shipman: “There is not much love for Matt Handjob here.” Known to receive even less favourable notices from his officials is Raab, who gives the 5pm press conference with the air of a man who strongly suspects there’s a chalk penis drawn on his back, but is just going to butch it out by facing forward till the bell goes.
Talking of butching it out, the good news is that the government is going to refuse to extend the Brexit transition period beyond the end of this year, even if the EU requests a delay, and against the urging of the International Monetary Fund. I know the ultra-Brexiteers enjoy a good war metaphor, so let’s just say that this out-of-the-pandemic-into-the-no-deal move threatens to give our nation a strong USS Indianapolis feel to it. By way of background, the Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese in 1945, in the worst naval attack of the second world war. Those sailors who survived were left bobbing in the Pacific, where, over the next few days, they were subject to the worst recorded shark attack in history.
Anyway, thus things rumble on while the prime minister remains off games. Boris Johnson is at Chequers, where his spokesman clarifies he is “not doing government work”. A slightly strange styling, which makes some people assume Johnson is finishing his late-delivered Shakespeare book. I’m sure nothing is further from the truth – not even Johnson himself, who has rarely been in the same hemisphere as the truth for his entire career.
But there is clearly some trade-off as to how his stand-ins should handle this particular chit from matron. On the one hand, they keep stressing absolutely everything is proceeding in accordance with a plan laid out by the prime minister before he fell ill. On the other, they want to avoid going too far on that front, or risk casting the UK as the driverless car of governance, a largely automated enterprise where the role of prime minister is essentially meaningless. A bit like that of regimental goat, or England football captain. (The Italians, of course, just give the armband to the oldest guy on the pitch. Then again, the past couple of months have arguably shown that we don’t care to learn anything much from the Italians.)
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Perhaps the best thing that can be said at the moment is that at least we’re not the United States. At the time of the Antonine plague, the Roman empire was ruled by Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher-statesman whose Meditations still racks up healthy sales a full 1,840 years after his death. At the time of the coronavirus, the US is ruled by Donald Trump, a realtor whose The Art of the Deal … probably won’t do. Pressed repeatedly on Thursday to tell his supporters who are flouting the lockdown to stay at home, Trump said: “They seem to be protesters that like me and respect my opinion.” So, unfortunately, he couldn’t bring himself to.
Having actively contributed to the loss of lives, Trump is going to have to get very creative in citing any that he’s saved. That said, last month was the first March without a school shooting since 2002, so maybe he could credit himself with the new approach to the US school shootings problem currently being trialled. Which is to say: no schools. All that time parent activists have spent trying to limit guns, it turned out that the smart way to do it was just to shut schools. Really makes you think. Do expect to see the National Rifle Association unveil a new slogan in the coming months: Guns don’t kill people; schools do.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist
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