First the carrot, then the stick. At Monday’s Downing Street press conference, we had Matt Hancock being “Mr Nice Guy” as he begged everyone to stick to the guidelines as the vaccination programme was rolled out. For Tuesday’s we got Priti Patel – the iron fist in a tungsten glove – and Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, to spell out what was in store for those people who insisted on breaking the rules.
Or for some people at any rate. Patel has form for giving a free pass to her mates, as she could never bring herself to criticise Dominic Cummings’s Durham safari back in the spring.
This was the first time the home secretary had been let loose at a No 10 briefing since May last year and it soon became clear why. Because Patel is almost pathologically unable to utter a coherent sentence. Whenever she prefaces a statement with, ‘Let me be clear’ – which she does with monotonous regularity – you can be certain she’s going to be anything but.
Still, she did get through her opening scripted remarks almost unscathed – if through gritted teeth – as she was forced to admit that most people were observing the rules properly.
This was clearly a disappointment. In Priti world, everyone – especially immigrants – is a potential law breaker and people should be issued with fixed penalty notices just for thinking of breaking the rules.
The trouble started with the first question from Ian, a member of the public, who wanted to know why the rules for the third lockdown were less onerous than they had been for the first, when the government’s own scientists had identified that the new coronavirus variant was far more infectious.
“Let me be clear,” she said. This was not about the rules now being more relaxed. Even though that was precisely what it was about, as the rules are demonstrably less draconian this time round.
Priti umm-ed and ahh-ed, talked nonsense for a bit and left everyone even more confused. The rules were extremely clear. Everyone was to stay at home and act as if they had the coronavirus apart from the occasions on which they would be allowed out.
And when they did go out, they should either stay close to their front door or remain local. Whichever was nearer to the front door or more local. It depended on the circumstances and whether it was “outdoor recreation”.
Not surprisingly, this mess of an answer was followed up by the same question from a journalist working for ITV and was responded to with a similar word salad. With Patel, the words on their own can occasionally make sense: the trouble starts when she tries to put them in any kind of order.
Hewitt tried to come to her rescue, suggesting: “People should ask themselves,