It had all been going so well. The government was on track to vaccinate the top four priority groups within the timeframe it had promised. Something that had astonished even Matt Hancock, one of the most naturally optimistic members of the cabinet. But then had come the bad news. Initial trials had suggested the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine didn’t appear to be that effective against the South African variant of the coronavirus and it turned out no one had actually yet got round to agreeing any contracts with hotel chains for quarantining arrivals from countries on the government’s red list.
So it was a somewhat subdued – brittle even – health secretary who fronted Monday’s Downing Street press conference. Hancock tried to remain upbeat but he’s beginning to look frayed around the edges. A year of trying to hold it together, of being that glass-half-full guy, appears to have taken its toll. Outwardly he still looks like one of the first contestants to be thrown off The Apprentice, but his eyes are the giveaway. They are almost dead. Empty hollows. I’m not sure how much longer he can keep this up. Even Tiggers have their breaking point.
The government has long since stopped providing X-rated graphs of the UK death tally compared with other countries. There’s world-beating and there’s world-beaten. Instead, we now prefer to ignore the rest of the world and just focus on ourselves. Somehow it makes it all more bearable. For ministers if not the rest of us. So Hancock started by saying that though the number of hospitalisations and deaths had come down, they were still far too high. No kidding.
But all was not totally bad. Vaccination uptake was higher than expected, though anyone over 70 who had not yet received a vaccination appointment should get in touch with the NHS. Test and trace were also doing brilliantly, apparently. Even the variants weren’t as frightening as all that, because if it hadn’t been for the UK’s capacity for genomic sequencing, then no one would have been any the wiser the virus had mutated. So, in a way, the fact we had identified so many new variants was a British success story.
The deputy chief medical officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam, was rather more reassuring. Yes, the South African variant was a worry because the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine only seemed to offer limited protection against it, but it was looking as if our very own Kent variant was actually far more transmissible. Which was a good thing because that meant there was much less chance of the South African variant becoming the dominant strain and our vaccines had been proved to be highly effective in combating the UK variant. So carry on as you were in getting vaccinated and wait for the arrival of a booster jab in the autumn if necessary.
Most of the questions predictably centred on the prevalence and ease of transmission of the South African variant and Hancock more or less managed to keep to the script. Only once did he appear to have blown it by mentioning the amount of work the government was doing on borders and quarantine. As in next to nothing. It had been more than 50 days since the South African variant had been identified and we were still acting as if it only entered the country by direct flights. And business class obviously.
You could sense his terror the moment he said it. Why had he gone and blabbed about quarantine when no one had asked about it? What could he possibly say to explain the government’s inertia? That the Home Office thought that by leaving the contracts to the last minute then they might be able to save £5 per night on each room? Wisely, Hancock chose to stop digging and just fell silent.
Door Matt also nearly came unstuck when asked how it was that test and trace was going along at a “blistering pace” when many staff were being made redundant. Ah, snapped Hancock. The fact that test and trace was able to lay off staff was a sign of just how efficiently it was now working. So once the organisation was down to double figures, it would be working perfectly. Presumably Hancock’s experience of test and trace is rather different from most other people’s.
And that was pretty much that. Hancock dodged any questions about an end-of-lockdown roadmap – that was so far above his pay grade – and merely urged everyone to have whatever vaccine they were offered. It hadn’t been a vintage performance. But for someone who is running on fumes, it had been the best he could offer.