At 12.30pm/1.30pm on Tuesday afternoon Oliver Dowden/Matt Hancock stood at the despatch box of the House of Commons and announced that, yes, letting Huawei provide the UK’s 5G network/not making face coverings mandatory in shops had been an absolutely terrible idea all along, just like everybody said it was.
That everyone else was right and that they were wrong, and that the policy would now be reversed with (almost) immediate effect.
Some people have chosen to call these identical announcements a “double U-turn”, or an “embarrassment” but I think that is unfair.
It’s best to think of the spectacle not as a double public self-shaming but a training exercise.
No one even bothers to pretend anymore that the coronavirus pandemic found anything other than a government not entirely capable of finding its backside with both hands.
So really, respect is due to any government minister who’s worked out that it’s really not very long until 2021, and really shouldn’t be passing up the chance to practise standing up in public and admitting that that thing the whole world could see was a terrible idea, that you all said was a terrible idea, was indeed a terrible idea. The only difference being it’ll be too late to get out of that one.
Depressing though it is to have to waste keystrokes, we must pause for a moment to enter the “culture war” on mask-wearing. It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that the circles that form the Venn diagram of People Who Won’t Wear A Mask To Go To The Shops and People Who Think Brexit Is A Good Idea overlap with such perfect exactitude to become what Bonnie Tyler might have called a total eclipse of the brain.
Douglas Carswell has taken the trouble to tell the world that he won’t be going to the shops anymore. Desmond Swayne MP stood up in the House of Commons to announce that it was a “monstrous imposition”. It is not clear when Swayne in particular became so opposed to face coverings, having only recently boasted on his blog about covering his face in boot polish to attend a fancy dress party as James Brown, an unlikely turn of events that took several days to make its way into the news, by unfortunate virtue of the fact that the knowledge of the existence of said blog had hitherto not extended beyond its author.
It was a kind of public service, in its way. In getting so wildly angry about the microscopic imposition of wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of a lethal illness, the mask slipped. These people are simply idiots, and there is no more to be said on the subject.
Still, none of us should be surprised. For some months now, the stubborn refusal to make any personal sacrifices whatsoever in the face of a virus that has already killed more British civilians than the Blitz has been coupled, in the usual dullard quarters, as an invocation of that “Blitz spirit”.
Ah, the Blitz. And not even just the Blitz, the entire war. When food was rationed, when every single night for six long years you had to stick ugly blackout curtains up in all your windows, and the moment you didn’t an officious volunteer would turn up at your door and fine you. A gentle smattering of especially selfish imbeciles objected to the imposition of all that, too. They will be pleased to see their “spirit” living on.
In both cases, the specifics are somewhat tricky. In particular Oliver Dowden – whose very gentle rise to extremely low-level fame has at least had the upside of making him, from the right angle, just about distinguishable from the prime minister’s little brother – had some excruciating explaining to do.
It had been concluded, in so many words, that Huawei couldn’t be trusted. So much so in fact, that the company would be completely removed from UK infrastructure within seven years. He was asked at one point, quite why it was that, if China couldn’t be trusted to install mobile telephone infrastructure, are we completely sure it could still be trusted to build us a nuclear power plant? The answer that came was more of a noise than anything actually worth transcribing.
And in announcing that face coverings should now be worn in shops, Matt Hancock found himself, not for the first time, clinging to the broken twig of “Answer” in the wild sea of “Question”.
How come in March the deputy chief medical officer said that wearing face masks would do more harm than good? Why has Spain, Italy and Germany and indeed Scotland been doing this for weeks but England hasn’t? Why are you telling people to wear face coverings in shops but also bribing them with government-backed £10 vouchers to take them off and eat in restaurants?
Why, in short, did you think that the whole world was wrong except you and you have now changed your mind?
Somehow, some day, the pandemic will go away. That question, on the other hand, will be lingering for decades. And no amount of practising the answer will be enough.