THE latest edition of BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? included this puzzler from Paul in Slough: ‘What does the panel understand to be the objective of the Government’s Covid strategy? The only clear objective I’ve heard was the slogan “Save Lives and Protect the NHS”, but that was six months ago. Is that still it? It seems to me that the NHS was protected to the extent that many died at home to non-Covid conditions. What next?’
That essential enquiry would once have been idiomatically dubbed the 64,000-dollar question; today, the value of the social and economic activity dependent upon the answer has become incalculable. If only Paul from Slough could directly put his poser to Boris Johnson, who this week is expected to announce further lockdown restrictions on liberty and freedom.
Before he addresses the nation, Johnson is unlikely to consult any junior ministers. Yet on Any Questions? it was Gillian Keegan, a humble Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department of Education, who had the unenviable task of answering on behalf of her boss the question summarised by host Chris Mason as: ‘What is the strategy now?’
Strategy (noun): A general plan or set of plans intended to achieve something, especially over a long period.
Unfortunately, Gillian Keegan’s response neither satisfied that definition nor specified the ‘something’ which the Government ultimately intends to achieve – not unless ‘doing everything we can to avoid a second lockdown’ and ‘trying keep the reproduction rate below 1’ have become ends in themselves.
Certainly she offered nothing that answered Paul’s plea to be told the Government’s ‘objective’. In fact, Gillian Keegan filled most of her airtime with banal boilerplate: ‘Soap and sanitiser … wear a face mask and make sure you’re distant from people … keep people in schools and make sure we can get people back to work … more restricted social lives to make sure we keep that number under 1 …’
Zzzz … That said, some listeners will briefly have awoken from slumber to snigger at Keegan explaining the difficulty of keeping the R-rate below 1 whilst opening-up the economy: ‘It is a challenge and a balance, and it is challenging to find that balance.’
Er, righty-ho. To be fair, despite her junior ranking, whenever Gillian Keegan speaks on TV and radio she is actually one of the Government’s more polished proponents; indeed, the Conservatives’ media monkeys would have been wiser to put up Keegan, a fluent filibusterer, to defend the Government on last week’s Question Time rather than the habitually hopeless Nadhim Zahawi, whose pathetic performance again lived down to expectations.
Even so, during her expansive non-answer on Any Questions? Gillian Keegan basically conceded that the Government’s only ‘strategy’ is play-for-time-and-pray-for-a-vaccine: ‘We’re doing as much as we possibly can to improve our testing and to increase the number of tests. That’s pretty much all we can control and that’s what we’re doing.’
Dismissing that aspiration as ‘targets for the sake of targets’, fellow panellist Timandra Harkness helpfully reminded everyone: ‘Paul’s actual question was: “What is the objective of this strategy, what is it for?” Okay, the objective is to avoid a second lockdown. There is a way to do that, which is just to say: “We’re not having a second lockdown and we’re going to let cases rise.”’
Unhappy that the Government followed other countries down a blind alley and has left itself ‘no clear way out of lockdown’, the discerning Harkness was asked whether the initial imposition had been a mistake: ‘I don’t know if it was a mistake, but I think it was done in a panic, without thinking what the consequences were going to be … We need a brave Government to say: “What we are saving here is not just individual lives, we’re saving society … We cannot live under lockdown indefinitely.”’
Exactly. But as Timandra Harkness noted, to change course and deliver us from lockdown limbo requires a gutsy Government – not the nervous Nellies led by jellyfish Johnson.
From Any Questions? broadcast on Friday, September 18. Listen from 16:30 here.