Boris Johnson Covid press conference. Flickr/Number 10
What was the point of that press conference convened by Boris Johnson on Monday evening? All day, leading up to it, hacks and politicians had been swapping gloom-laden prognostications. COBRA had met. The scientists were briefing on the new, fast-spreading Covid-19 strain, the mutation that caused the world to cut off travel links with Britain. It sounded as though a major new announcement, perhaps of a new national lockdown, was on the way from the Prime Minister.
And then the press conference happened and it produced… what?
There was a ho-hum update on the freight problems with France. Johnson and President Macron had a nice telephone conversation. They hope to get some sort of solution, but maybe not. Either way it all proves, said the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, that the country is ready for no deal. Nothing to see here, move along.
So why lay on this baffling non-event of a press conference at all?
In part it comes down to a determination on the part of the new Number 10 comms team post-Cummings to make things less exciting, to make government and the business of communications normal again after an explosive period during which the media, and the watching part of the public, saw nerve-jangling, disruptive Downing Street madness as the default communications strategy.
The main problem, though, is that the Prime Minister is wrestling with the question of how far to go. At the uppermost reaches of the government there is an intense debate ongoing about how best to combat this new strain.
Patrick Vallance hinted at what is coming when he was asked about the sustainability of the tier system. He was diplomatic, but he pointed the way. If this new strain is up to 70% more transmissible then it will not be long before those parts of England not in tier 4 go into it.
Ironically, if the new strain is already spreading fast, especially among the more mobile young, then the government may beyond January have to consider going for a different approach to pure lockdown, and opting for something closer to that approach recommended by moderate lockdown sceptics, of shielding the vulnerable from the new surge and letting the young function with fewer restrictions. Mercifully, there are vaccines too. The roll-out of the Oxford vaccine (if it gets approval in the next week) will be conducted with extreme urgency on a huge scale from mid-January.
Whatever the outcome of these policy discussions, it is clear that in the immediate next phase tougher restrictions are coming. It is just a question of how much tougher. Downing Street can call it nationwide tier 4, or tier 4.5 or tier 5, rather than lockdown 3.0. They can call it whatever they want but this is where they are taking us.