There may come a time when an emergency press conference actually reassures someone, but were a long way off as yet. Quite the reverse, in fact. When Boris Johnson had lined up with the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, at Downing Street last Tuesday the mood had been notably more relaxed. Though Boris had tried to look serious when doing his familiar front-of-house business as usual act, hed still found time for a few light-hearted gaffes and gags. And Whitty and Vallance had appeared to be thoroughly enjoying their unexpected turn in the spotlight as the countrys favourite experts.
A week on, and the three amigos were back in the same state room at No 10. But this time there were no smiles and even fewer words of reassurance. Even the hitherto imperturbable Whitty looked flushed and sweaty as he tried to choose his words carefully, while Boris appeared to have aged years.
This wasnt the job he signed up for last year. He liked being the bearer of good tidings mostly out of a need to distance himself from his own despair and destruction. He was the Mr Fun Guy prime minister. The gaslighter-in-chief who could say, Get Brexit done and people would believe it despite it obviously being bollocks.
The current crisis was a whole new ball game. No amount of saying Were getting coronavirus done would cut it. There was only so much bullshit the public would take. Now was the time he had to drop the ersatz charm and show genuine leadership. And his self-doubt was all too visible. Unsurprising, as one key message was to behave responsibly and think of others two things Boris has seldom done.
This was much too real for Boris, too hard. He bounced nervously from foot to foot and his eyes darted around the room for signs of comfort from the assembled reporters. His unease rubbed off on everyone. You could feel the tension in the room.
It was soon apparent that no one actually had anything new to say. They just felt the need to be visible and say pretty much the same things as before, only in a slightly more panicky tone of voice. People should basically carry on doing what they had been doing before, they said. We were still in the containment phase, even though Whitty had told last Thursdays health select committee that he thought we had now moved into stage two of mainly delay. It was beginning to look as if there was not much difference between containment and delay after all.
The main message appeared to be that everyone knew that the situation was going to get much worse, but the plan was to do nothing different until it had actually got worse, so most of the questions focused on why we werent doing more now. If we knew the UK was going to find itself in the same situation in two weeks time that Italy is now in, why not try to get ahead of the curve and implement some of the more extreme measures the Italian government had already implemented? Surely that must save more lives?
Here we saw the coronavirus crisis for what it was. A brutal numbers game of damage limitation. There was no point yet banning large gatherings bad news for Spurs season ticket holders, who had been hoping both for a decent refund and being spared the horrors of watching the team try to play football or even small ones. Partly because it had little effect on transmission in the early stages of an epidemic. But mostly because if you introduced these measures too soon, then people got bored of them when it really counted and ignored them.
Only it was a numbers game with no numbers. At least none to which Johnson, Whitty or Vallance were prepared to commit. Asked if he agreed with the Scottish chief medical officers suggestion that 4% of those infected a possible two million people could need hospital treatment, Whitty became unusually vague. Boris merely said he was sure the NHS would continue to do a marvellous job. No one thought it the right time to remind him just how many hospital beds the Tories had cut in the last 10 years. Its time for a national effort, he said. The country must pull together. We know how to defeat this and we will. We just had no idea of the expected casualties.
Earlier in the afternoon, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, was also coming under a little more pressure when forced to answer an urgent question on the coronavirus epidemic. Up till now, all parties had been prepared to cut the government some slack a genuine coming together at a time of a national emergency. Now, though, there was a feeling on all benches that it was a time to get real and stop talking in generalities.
Labours shadow health secretary demanded to know what the actual budgets for the NHS were. Jeremy Hunt asked for the governments estimated casualties. Hilary Benn wanted to know how many ventilators there were and how many staff were trained to use them. Tigger had no answers. Then again, neither does anyone else. At least, none that they are prepared to share with us.