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Two helpings of Priti Patel is pretty much no help at all

John Crace
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Matt Dunham/PA</span>
Photograph: Matt Dunham/PA

Boris Johnson spoils us. Up until last week, the home secretary had been kept away from the Downing Street press conferences since a disastrous appearance last May. Now we get Priti Patel twice in two weeks. But then the prime minister didn’t have a lot of choice, given that he clearly didn’t fancy taking Thursday night’s himself. Matt Hancock is self-isolating, Dominic Raab appears to have taken a vow of silence, and Gavin Williamson had all but handed in his resignation letter during a car crash series of interviews during the morning media round.

Then perhaps Patel wasn’t such a bad choice after all. Not because she had anything very important to say, but precisely because she didn’t. Few politicians match her ability to fill dead air with a series of disconnected sentences that leave most people none the wiser by the time she comes to a stop. Ideal for a press briefing with minimal news content that has to be extended to 40 minutes to keep up appearances.

The home secretary did more or less just fine when she was reading from her pre-prepared statement. Nearly 5 million people had been vaccinated so far, she wanted to counter disinformation that the vaccine wasn’t safe, 1,290 people had been reported dead in 24 hours, the NHS was under pressure and she was bringing in a new fine of £800 for the minority of people who insisted on still having house parties.

Patel made it sound as if the few people breaking the rules were entirely responsible for the pandemic rather than any mistakes on the government’s part. She then handed over to Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, and Dr Vin Diwakar, NHS England regional medical director for London, who pretty much repeated what she had already said with a few examples thrown in. So far so good.

It all began to unravel a bit when the questions began. The BBC’s Vicki Young wanted to know if England was likely to extend its lockdown as Northern Ireland had just done and whether the home secretary was pleased that Boris had finally got round to her way of thinking on enforcing stricter border controls for visitors from other countries.

Patel could sense danger and she activated her default setting of mindless filler. We were in the middle of a terrible pandemic. The vaccine was a good thing. It was far too early to say when the lockdown would end, even though the government had actually promised a review in the middle of February that everyone had always known was absurdly optimistic and had only been been introduced as a possibility to keep the Coronavirus Research Group headbangers vaguely onside.

It also appeared to have slipped Patel’s mind that earlier this week – perhaps anticipating a messy and damaging public inquiry – she had knifed Johnson in the back by claiming she had wanted stricter border controls back in March but had been overruled by the prime minister. So she ignored that bit of the question and went back on to repeat. We were in the middle of a terrible pandemic. The vaccine was a good thing. It was far too early to say when the lockdown would end etc etc.

The home secretary did much the same when asked whether people should think about booking summer holidays. We were in the middle of a terrible pandemic. The vaccine was a good thing. It was far too early to say when the lockdown would end and people should be concentrating on staying home rather than thinking of travelling. And by the way the emergency services were doing an excellent job.

To break things up, and perhaps because even she realised that she didn’t have anything more to say, Patel regularly invited further contributions from Hewitt and Diwakar but they didn’t have much to add to what they had already said. Beyond Hewitt asking the government to get the police higher up the vaccination priority list and Diwakar saying that the NHS was under such strain that he couldn’t conceive of planning more than two weeks in advance at the moment. So the idea of people booking summer holidays was a massive category error.

There was time for Patel to dismiss quarantine hotels as “speculative” – if the home secretary doesn’t know what government policy is, then who does? – and to brand vaccine queue-jumpers as “morally reprehensible” but she came unstuck right at the end when asked why the UK had the worst death rate, and whether the government’s own actions had been a major factor in this. Unlike at the weekend when she had tried to argue that other countries counted dead people differently, Priti Vacant went back to her customary diversionary tactics of semi-coherent rambling.

We were in the middle of a terrible pandemic. The vaccine was a good thing. It was far too early to say when the lockdown would end. Every death was a tragedy. Perhaps the repetition was a comfort to her, but most listeners had nodded off by the time she closed with the assertion that at all times the government had been guided by the science. There are many scientists – including an increasingly vocal Patrick Vallance – who would beg to differ. But for Patel it was job done: a press conference that had contributed little to public understanding. Onwards and sideways.