Well, who would you trust with the nation’s health?
On the Radio 4 Today programme, Jenny Harries, chief executive of the Health Security Agency and frequent celebrity guest at Downing Street press conferences, had rather suggested that she would be taking a more cautious approach to the omicron variant than the government. Instead of ripping off her mask in the pub and getting trashed at any Christmas party to which she could get herself invited, she would be limiting her social contacts wherever possible. And if the rest of us knew what was good for us, we would be following her example.
This clearly wasn’t quite the message Boris Johnson had intended for the country. He had expected Harries to be gung-ho and say any old shit like she had early on in the pandemic.
But she had clearly wised up. No matter. In a straight fight between taking the advice of medical experts and doing anything for a quiet life, it’s no contest for the prime minister. Bertie Booster knows best. Everything will turn out just fine. Probably. But if you’re going to panic, it’s always best to do it later. When it really counts. Nothing worse than half-hearted panic.
So within a couple of hours No 10 had officially disowned Harries. She was having a bad day and didn’t know what she was saying. The government was in charge and putting on a mask for 30 minutes a day and self-isolating if you came into contact with someone with the Omicron variant was more than enough to be getting on with.
And just in case that wasn’t entirely clear, Johnson did a TV clip for Sky in which he insisted that what Harries had really said was that people should be careful. That they should think twice before socialising and then just say “fuck it” and do it anyway. Which she hadn’t said at all.
Unfortunately nobody appeared to have told Maggie Throup, the truly hopeless vaccines minister, any of this before she opened the hastily arranged debate on the new Covid provisions that had actually come into effect nine hours earlier.
So what followed was a total mullering. Even on a good day, Throup comes across as barely conscious. And this wasn’t a good day. It was a bad day. A very bad day.
Almost immediately after Throup had got to her feet she was interrupted by the libertarian extremists on the Tory right for whom any new restriction is a total insult to civil liberties. First they piled in on Harries. How dare a doctor think she knew better than they did! So would Throup publicly denounce her? She wouldn’t. As she knew nothing, she just hedged her bets.
“Everyone likes socialising,” she said, sounding thoroughly miserable, before meandering into a dreary anecdote about how washing her hands had played havoc with her skin. Luckily no one was listening to her humiliation as the lunatics had taken over the asylum.
William Wragg was certain that Omicron was nothing to worry about as no one appeared to have died from it. Maggie didn’t have the nous to tell him it was a new variant and that the data was still being collected.
That was one of the more intelligent contributions. Desmond Swayne was certain the only reason people got vaccinated was to make sure they didn’t get pinged. It hadn’t occurred to him that most people just didn’t want to die, get seriously ill or kill vulnerable friends and family. Graham Brady, another of the more intellectually challenged MPs, reckoned that if the Omicron variant was resistant to the vaccine then it was best all round if people died sooner than later. Then we’d know where we were. Craig MacKinlay rather agreed. There was no point developing a new vaccine that worked against Omicron as the virus would only mutate again.
Christopher Chope couldn’t work out why people who had been vaccinated should be made to wear masks even if they were infectious, while the fundamentalist Steve Baker saw it as something of a crusade. The government had been poised between heaven and hell in making people wear masks on the bus and had chosen the path of eternal damnation. Seriously. How come it was only the men who were in urgent need of a stupidity vaccine?
Later in the afternoon Boris and Sajid Javid were out giving a joint press conference in which they mostly told everyone what they had been telling them for the past few days. Saj was rather more measured. Almost team Jenny without actually spelling it out. Omicron was a very high global risk and there’s a lot we don’t know yet, he said.
In which case, you might wonder why he wasn’t taking a more precautionary approach to the new variant. Then again, he’s clearly been taken hostage by Downing Street and is suffering from Stockholm syndrome. “If we want the best chance of Christmas with our loved ones, we need a booster jab,” he burbled. Yeah right. It was going to take until the middle of February to get everyone jabbed. Plus it takes two weeks for the vaccine to be effective. Do the maths and choose your Christmas parties with care.
Boris, meanwhile, was back to being Bullshitter Bertie Booster.
In his world everything is always going to turn out for the best, up until the time it doesn’t. So he was full of good cheer. Christmas? Nothing to worry about.
He’d checked in with Jenny and he was sure she was back on message. The government’s response was balanced and proportionate. As in he’d done the bare minimum which also happened to be the most some of his more deranged backbenchers would tolerate. Besides, you only really needed masks if you were meeting people you didn’t know. Mmm. Fingers crossed and all that.
John Crace and Zoe Williams will be live on stage in London at a Guardian Live event on 13 December. Join the conversation in-person or online by booking tickets here.
A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.