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“The Oxford jab is safe and the Pfizer jab is safe. The thing that isn’t safe is catching Covid.” With that punchy, succinct line, Boris Johnson proved that sometimes there are merits in having a journalist as prime minister.
For all the careful, caveated hedging of Chris Whitty and medicine regulator June Raine (whose name beautifully sums up an English summer weather vibe), what was most needed was clarity and simplicity on the balanced risk of taking the AstraZeneca jab. Short of Whitty screaming ‘You want to see blood clots? See Covid patients’, it was the PM who got the message across best.
And amid worries over vaccine supply, Johnson stressed that not only was the jab programme on track but also his wider exit roadmap out of Covid restrictions was still intact. “There is no change to the next steps of the roadmap,” he said. “Our progress along the road to freedom continues unchecked.” Seeing friends, family, pubs, gyms and shops all beckoned as planned.
But that bold statement was proof of the limits of having a hack premier, or more specifically newspaper-headlines-as-policy. The PM has for weeks told us that his roadmap is all about “data not dates”, yet here he was binding himself tightly to those dates. In his desperation to reassure the public, it felt like an overreach of the “nothing to see here” variety.
It took Whitty to reassert his role as Mr Caution, pointing out that the real policy was all about assessing the evidence after each stage of the roadmap. It was “far too early to look at the data” to understand if the return of schools had made a significant impact, he said (adding that “at the moment” there was nothing flashing red lights “beyond what you’d expect”).
Johnson’s journalistic past returned to haunt him again today as The Mirror dug up some remarks from his Spectator and Telegraph columns where he described NHS nurses as “starch bosomed” and joked about how to “handle” them. Given that the PM this Wednesday vowed to attack “casual, everyday sexism”, it was a reminder of just how long the charge sheet is against him.
On our latest Commons People podcast, Labour’s Jess Phillips was blunt about all this, saying “I can’t rehabilitate Boris Johnson’s sexism, I’m not even going to try, it’s a massive waste of my time…the best way to apologise, I say this to my children: sorry is just a word, changing your behaviour and making a change is the thing that will prove to me you’re actually sorry.”
Coming months will tell us whether there is real action on violence against women and girls, yet on the Covid pandemic itself it’s the PM’s inaction that has of course been his biggest weakness. A new Resolution Foundation report estimated that delaying the winter lockdown caused up to 27,000 extra deaths in England.
The think tank also reiterated its call for higher statutory sick pay, saying this was the most “glaring failure of economic policy” of the past year. Matt Hancock is understood to be in favour of jacking up rates, presumably because he can see that it would future-proof us against the next Covid wave, allowing more people to isolate without fear of losing income. But action, not words, is still missing.
Sadly, Johnson wasn’t asked at his press conference if he agreed with Dominic Cummings on the need for an “urgent” inquiry into the pandemic. The former aide tweeted he would tell the Commons health and science committees on June 26 “why things went so catastrophically wrong”. Even though Cummings’ target is bound to be “Whitehall”, that’s one date in the diary the PM may not relish.
Meanwhile, long after his departure from No.10, Cummings’ culture war on the media appears to be lingering like a bad stench in this government. Jacob Rees-Mogg disgraced himself by attacking my colleague Arj Singh in the Commons for committing the journalistic crime of reporting the words that came out of a minister’s mouth.
A clip of Raab’s words about the need to trade with countries that lacked “ECHR-level standards of human rights” was leaked to us because FCO staff felt they were a cause for concern. Crucially, his full remarks were not a repudiation of that quote, but a validation of it. “We don’t junk whole relationships because we’ve got issues,” he added. There was no “distortion”.
But exposing both his snobbery (he claimed The Times would never report what HuffPost UK did) and his ignorance (the Times used the exact same quote on its front page), Rees-Mogg showed that beneath all the fake politesse of his concocted young fogey persona there lurks a man scared to death of scrutiny.
In that, maybe he’s just following his boss’s lead. Yet we’ll probably wait in vain for Rees-Mogg to condemn a former journalist who literally made up a quote and was sacked from the Times as a result: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. There’s no distorting that fact, not the most salient one of all: the 125,000 deaths and counting from Covid on their watch.