How to do pandemic politics? Glad you asked me that

Claire Calman outlines her lockdown manifesto

June 11, 2020 14:32

Many people have said to me, “Claire – you’d be a brilliant MP. Have you thought of standing for election in future?” (When I say “many”, that’s with the journalistic use, meaning “more than one” — ie two).

With my future career in mind, I am consulting a Spad (Special Adviser) to help transform me from rough diamond to credible candidate. My Spad poses tough questions, of the sort I’ll have to face on Question Time, from journalists and the general public, to hone my ability to handle potentially damaging topics. During our gruelling online meetings, I sit two metres away from my laptop so that no-one can say I’m flouting the rules, as these things have a nasty habit of coming to light later on.

Here is a partial transcript of our recent practice session. In the interests of topicality, our focus was the current pandemic.

Question: Minister (I’m confident that I will be promoted to cabinet quickly as I’m making such good progress), why was the decision made to change the original government injunction from “Stay home” to “Stay alert” when no-one really knows what the latter means? How could staying alert protect someone from the virus?

Answer: Good question. In these challenging times, it’s important not to be complacent. This means changing government advice at random intervals — sorry, at key points. Switching slogans helps ensure that the public sits up and pays attention. Otherwise, like “strong and stable”, your slogan can become stale and laughable, and the topic of merciless cartoons.

Spad’s note to CC: Don’t admit that any of it is random — sounds chaotic. And for god’s sake, never, ever mention “strong and stable”.

Q: Given that we had plenty of warning as the pandemic took hold in Italy, and it was likely to follow a similar trajectory here, why did the government delay lockdown?

A: I’m glad you asked me that. Of course, while ministers decide on strategy, that strategy is always going to be science-led in a scenario like this.

Note: Good — imply it’s the experts’ fault. Well done for remembering to say “I’m glad you asked me that” even though, of course, you’re not.

Q: Why do the rules for easing lockdown vary across the four nations of the UK when the virus doesn’t respect borders — what’s the logic?

A: There isn’t any — the others hate all of us in Westminster so it’s just another way to be a thorn in our flesh.

Note: Yes, obviously, but you’re not supposed to say this. The line is always blah blah devolved powers and mutual respect yada-yada. Try not to make that face when you mention Nicola Sturgeon.

Q: Why has the UK adopted a “safe” distance rule of 2m when the World Health Organisation says that 1m metre is probably safe?

A: Because we all know that the British are stroppy and unlikely to observe it anyway. It’s like our guidance instructing people to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day — in the hope that maybe they’ll eat two or three, and even then one of them’s probably going to be a strawberry milkshake. If we say 2m, they might manage 1m. If we say 1m, no-one would bother at all.

Note: You haven’t grasped about how best to use the truth in an answer — which is rarely. The correct answer is: “There is a range of views on the most effective safe distance, but the UK government, to protect the lives of our citizens, especially vulnerable groups, has followed a cautious approach.” When in doubt, always mention “protect” “cautious” and “vulnerable groups”. Try not to smile when talking about something life-threatening — it looks callous and creepy.

Q: A recent measure to ease lockdown was to allow people to meet in small groups. The decision was announced on a Thursday with the rule set to change on Monday but it was noticeable that on the weekend, every beach and green space was packed full of groups. Why didn’t you delay the announcement until the day it was due to come into force?

A: We don’t have the police to arrest or fine everyone — it’s just easier to see what people are doing then shift the rules accordingly. It’s like when I add something to my To Do list retrospectively after I’ve done it so I can have the satisfaction of ticking it off.

Note: NO, no, no! You have to make it sound like it’s a well thought-out strategy not a mad making-it-up-as-we-go-along shambles: “We make announcements in advance as that’s the responsible approach to enable people to plan ahead”.

Q: Why have you said it’s now “safe” for those shielding to start going outside when in fact the infection rate is still very high?

A: We have to make it look as if we have some notion of what we’re doing so we always make announcements with tremendous confidence even if, inwardly, we’re thinking “Oy-oy-oy – this could go badly wrong….” So, this looks like a staged easing of restrictions when in fact it’s a random act of gambling with the health of the most vulnerable.

Note: To be honest, I think you might not be quite ready for politics….

Twitter: @clairecalman. Claire Calman’s new novel, ‘Growing Up for Beginners’, is out now.

June 11, 2020 14:32

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