Following days of confusion and conjecture on Sunday night the Prime Minister delivered his long awaited televised address to the nation. In the aftermath of ill conceived briefs to the tabloids and leaks to the Sunday papers it was imperative to deliver clarity regarding his already much derided ‘alert strategy’ but he surely what must have weighed on his mind was the level of public clamour for the fine detail of what it would mean in the coming days.
One day on and the history of how this sorry episode played out has already been consigned to millions of shared memes. The broad strategy may have been coherent, with the now familiar reference to keeping the R below one and a timeline of sorts was rolled out until July. But right now we are in the middle of a once in a century pandemic and as the economist John Kay has it ‘there is no grand narrative, only little stories’ .
Boris gave himself just 10 minutes to share his plans with the 27 million watching at home, no further guidance was published online and predictably well into the night people’s questions about whether they could have their cleaner back, see their grandchildren and or send their 5 year olds back to school flooded countless WhatsApp groups and Facebook threads.
He may just have got away with all of this if he had not bizarrely suggested that people who can’t work from home should make their own way to work the next day.
By Monday morning a thick fog had descended on the entire communications exercise which was only partially lifted when in the early afternoon a 50 page report and a really quite lucid FAQs page were uploaded on the government website.
Then last night the PM, having endured a forensic Commons examination by Sir Keir Starmer, appeared on a live TV phone-in with the public hurling the questions.
The first was posed by Simon from Dorset and it was a zinger.
He painted a scenario where he walked to the park and there encountered his parents, who we must assume he hadn’t seen for seven odd weeks . He must have asked the question knowing the only answer he would elicit from the Prime Minister was that by greeting his own mother and father he would be breaking even these new reduced lockdown restrictions.
Boris, naturally, fumbled his response. How could he not? Who goes into politics to deny a son a chance to embrace his own mum and dad?
In that moment my anger and frustration at the ineptitude of a government of the past few days seeped away. I felt for Boris, for Simon, if he truly was missing his parents and I thought of my mum back in Belfast waiting for the phone to ring, now her only connection to the world beyond her tidy little flat.
How could Boris have imagined just a few months ago that he would ever be in this place? Think about having to impose these rules on an entire nation.
A few minutes later fielding a question from Beth Rigby from Sky the PM and his chief medical and scientific advisers each in their various ways explained to the nation that we could never be certain that we would find a vaccination to kill this virus.
It’s become a cliché now but both the policy and communications relating to lifting the lockdown are inherently more complex than getting it into it. But get out of it we must.
The lockdown served us a solution to mitigate the impact of a pandemic we were ill prepared for and to preserve the NHS we revere but it was a policy founded on fear. This new so-called ‘Phase Two’ we are tiptoeing into requires a new narrative, not fear but how to confront it.
This theme is immemorial, life is risky, our fate precarious.
The logic of allowing us to meet a single person besides those we live with is clear but we can’t live like this for much longer.
The punctilious responses to Simon’s question couldn’t mask what his question had revealed. Of course we would not ignore our parents in the park, pandemic or not.
Two months ago the government told us bluntly to upend our lives and stay at home and we obliged them. Now in a muddled way they are asking us to step outside .
If you doubt you can or that we must, just ask yourself the question that Simon put to Boris.
Think of your parents in the park.