I am prepared to hold up my hands and admit to not knowing the current coronavirus distancing rules that relate to where I live. My village lies a few miles to the north of Bradford, and in the summer it was excluded from tighter restrictions imposed on the city itself. Then it was lumped back in with Bradford again, but only – I think – for some specific measures. But which ones? And are local restrictions now superseded by the rule of six? Everyone I ask hasn’t a clue.
If you find all these coronavirus questions mind-numbingly confusing, console yourself with the knowledge that you are in the best of Old Etonian company. The prime minister himself doesn’t know – to put it bluntly – WTF is going on?
One thing we know about Johnson is that to cover up his inability to grasp detail he plays everything for laughs. And so his appearance at a Devon college last week must earn him a comedy award. Having realised the Conservative Party will want to ditch him as soon as he “gets Brexit done”, to my eyes Johnson looked like he was trying to carve a new career in stand-up. Unfortunately for him they don’t hand out awards for plagiarism. It was soon realised his waffling, bumbling and head-scratching performance while trying to explain the current restrictions had been lifted from a video posted on social media in May by Little Britain star Matt Lucas. “Don’t go to work, go outside. Don’t go outside,” blustered Matt. “And then we will or won’t, something or other.” Which four months later was parodied by Johnson when trying to explain the rule of six: “In the North East and other areas where extra tight measures have been brought in… as I understand it, it’s six in a home or six in hospitality but, as I understand it, not six outside.” Cue avalanche of derision followed by an apology from Downing Street that the Prime Minister had “misspoke”.
My advice to the PM is to stay clear of the north of England if he intends to come here and attempt such clarifications. Across Yorkshire and Lancashire, where there are numerous local restrictions, the rules are as impenetrable as our autumn mists.
I almost feel sorry for Johnson, however. The fact is, it’s all now beyond everyone’s comprehension. No one gets it. In some places it’s illegal to meet anyone you don’t live with in pubs, bars or restaurants, but the locations change every week. Johnson’s general puzzlement is shared with another member of the government, this time the skills minister Gillian Keegan who, when asked to explain the lockdown rules on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, admitted she didn’t understand them either.
By the time you read this there’ll be a new set of rules. Liverpool may be heading towards a “circuit breaker” total lockdown. The new 10 o’clock pumpkin time for customers of bars, pubs and restaurants hasn’t worked, having the entirely predictable consequence of people going outside to buy drinks at the nearest convenience store and party in the street or at someone’s house or flat, as we’re seeing in the centre of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and York.
And so incomprehension piles up on inconsistency. If only we didn’t have a buffoon for a prime minister.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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