It was more a question of do as I say, not as I do. “We must be humble,” said Matt Hancock. Not something that comes naturally to Matt, despite him having a lot to be humble about. “We must look at the evidence.” Only it turned out that the health secretary was quite selective about which parts of the evidence he wanted to look at.
Door Matt’s latest statement to the Commons on the Covid-19 pandemic was meant to be a triumphal drive-by. The day that England could celebrate reaching the third stage of its four-part roadmap to freedom. The day when people could meet indoors and hug one another. When they could eat and drink inside pubs and restaurants. Instead, Hancock was urging caution. Proof of double vaccination was probably in order for any kind of physical contact and only then with masks. And it was still better to sit outside and get soaked rather than meet up indoors.
The reason for the big letdown was the India variant, which is now prevalent in Bolton and Blackburn and has been detected in many other parts of the country. Though Door Matt was at pains to point out it wasn’t really the government’s fault. Those who had got ill had no one to blame but themselves, as almost all the people in hospital had failed to get themselves vaccinated.
So his message today was for everyone in the affected areas to go and get vaccinated. Apart from the under-30s, who weren’t eligible. They were free to spread the disease as much as they liked because they were statistically unlikely to need hospitalisation. Hancock didn’t seem that bothered about the possibility of them passing on the disease to those that might get seriously ill.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, was quick to point out some of the inconsistencies in the statement. Wasn’t this a problem entirely of the government’s own making? Hadn’t it yet again been far too slow to close the UK borders and was paying for its errors in an upsurge of the India variant? Pakistan and Bangladesh had been put on the red list two weeks before India at a time when they were experiencing a lower rate of infection than their neighbour. So why the delay? And why the four-day delay in implementing the travel restrictions that allowed many thousands of potentially infectious people to fly back to the UK from India?
Hancock sighed impatiently. All these questions were category errors. No one could reasonably have expected the government to have acted any differently on the basis of the information available at the time. After all, we had put India on the red list sooner than Germany or Canada. And before the India variant had been formally labelled one of concern.
This was Door Matt at his most disingenuously slippery. He omitted to mention that Germany and Canada had fewer flights to India, or that it had been quite obvious to all scientists that India was experiencing a huge increase in the number of infections in early April. So just because it had not been identified as a variant of concern didn’t mean the government was right to ignore it. Trying to explain away the higher rates of infection in India as merely a sign of higher rates of testing was feeble in the extreme. There was clearly a problem that he had chosen to ignore.
And another thing, said Hancock. Anyone who thought that the reason the government had delayed putting India on the red list was because Boris Johnson was due to visit the country and was desperate not to do anything that might piss off the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and scupper a much-needed post-Brexit trade deal, could just do one. Because Boris was an honourable man and would never dream of putting his own interests ahead of the nation’s health.
The inconsistencies slowly mounted up. The difference between a country on the red list and the amber list was that you were allowed to go to one on the latter as long as you didn’t actually leave the UK to get there. And allowing children not to wear masks in secondary school was part of the precautionary principle as it had been proved that no one could spread coronavirus in a school environment. Or something equally stupid.
Unsurprisingly, Hancock’s explanations didn’t really satisfy anyone on both benches and by the time he had given the same unsatisfactory answer four or five times, he was sounding tetchy and looking increasingly flustered. Matt talks a great deal about levelling with the country but he can’t even level with himself. The reality is that the government doesn’t learn from its own mistakes as it is unable to admit it has made them. So it is destined to endlessly repeat them. The dead are just collateral damage.