Isabel Hardman

What was the Covid press conference for?

A cynic would say the booster drive is giving Boris a happy distraction

What was the Covid press conference for?
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What was the point of tonight's Covid press conference? Boris Johnson didn't have anything big to announce, other than a very dubious-looking new lectern telling people to 'Get Boosted N0w', with the 0 in the 'now' looking a lot like a Hula Hoop. His purported focus was on the doubling rate of Omicron, and to announce today's record high number of positive tests (78,000).

A cynic might argue that calling a press conference on the vaccination programme is distracting from the self-inflicted political mess Boris is currently wallowing through. Given people are already queuing round the block for their booster jabs, it doesn't seem as though the message about Getting Boosted Now really needs a, well, boost.

Arranging press briefing sends everyone into a whirl of worry that a new lockdown might be announced, which isn't unreasonable given the last-minute nature of many of the big announcements over the past two years. But there might have been a more noble purpose to getting everyone to nervously switch on their TVs once again. There's an old, rather crude, management technique whereby a boss summons a member of staff into their office. The worker thinks that this summons means they are in trouble, possibly facing the sack. They enter, trembling, only to be asked to carry out some random task. Of course they accept on the spot, delighted and relieved that their job is safe, and trot happily out. The random task is in some way demeaning or boring and had the manager just approached them in the office or on the shop floor, their employee might have argued about whether it was necessary. But when it's the alternative to the sack, well, it sounds wonderful*. So queuing to get your booster jab, or volunteering to help with the 'national effort' to vaccinate people is the smallest of asks when you'd turned the TV on expecting to be banned from seeing grandma again this Christmas.

Either way, the Prime Minister and chief medical officer Chris Whitty were very keen to talk about the vaccination programme. Whitty raised the possibility of developing 'polyvalent vaccines', which would protect against a number of strains of the virus. But these aren't around yet: could they be the next thing people are told to wait for until they can have a 'normal' life again? No one at the press conference really wanted to give any indication of when this cycle of vaccination, restriction and then relaxation might end.

Whitty warned again that there was a serious threat the NHS could be overwhelmed. He also went further than the Prime Minister did (or felt he could) and instructed people to prioritise the social interactions that really matter to them. Johnson did not tell people to limit their contact. This might be because there is currently no government support package for the hospitality industry to cope with cancellations at their busiest time of year. Or it might be for the reasons he is in the self-inflicted political mess that some feel he called this press conference to distract from. When that mess came up in questions about last night's vaccine passport revolt and about Downing Street partying, the Prime Minister looked distinctly pained. He can't really distract from his political messes by talking about Covid: they are so big now that talking about the pandemic makes it inevitable that he has to end up talking about them too.

* I speak from bitter experience here as the mug who was so relieved not to be sacked from a holiday job at HMV for not knowing anything about music, films or gaming that I agreed readily to stand outside a competitor shop in the rain on Christmas Eve, telling desperate shoppers that HMV was still open and had cheaper PlayStations