A Govester briefing is proof we're scraping the trustworthiness barrel

John Crace

That sound you just heard?

The barrel being scraped. When the main purpose of the Downing Street press conference is to convey the truly horrific death tolls from the coronavirus and to put the best gloss on the government’s – at best – belated response, the least you might hope for is a cabinet minister of some gravitas and sincerity.

But with Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock both sidelined with the virus and Rishi Sunak – just about the only person who inspires confidence despite being only 12 – unwilling to make it a daily gig, the government is having to scrabble around for whoever they can get. And with some ministers – such as Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Grant Shapps and Jacob Rees-Mogg – being obvious non-starters both on the intellect and empathy counts, the gene pool of talent is remarkably thin. And after Dominic Raab’s less than convincing, finger-licking performance the day before, he’s unlikely to get a call back any time soon.

So this time we got Michael Gove as front of house. A man who has almost become a dictionary definition of someone who cannot be trusted. A politician who was twice rejected as leader by the Tory MPs who knew him best on the grounds he could not be relied on not to stab himself in the back.

On the plus side, he had remembered to replace the pyjama bottoms that he had worn for the Zoom cabinet meeting in the morning with his suit trousers – though everyone in the entire cabinet now has it in for Liz T after she upstaged them all by posing in front of a Union Jack. On the downside, he began by insisting on mentioning “the Facts”.

The Facts and the Govester are uneasy bedfellows.

And after listing the recent mortality rates, Mikey swiftly went off piste. Rather than getting to grips with any details of the levels of testing, he went headlong into obfuscation and wish fulfilment.

Yes, we were doing a few more tests than the day before – about 17 – and we needed to do a lot more. The problem was getting the necessary reagents to make them.

The Govester rather skirted over the reason we were short of reagents was that his government was totally asleep on the job back in January and February – the scandal of the Big Ben bongs and the necessity of the 10-day half-term break for Boris were far more important – at a time when the chemicals were more widely available.

Now every country that makes them is predictably keen to hang on to them for themselves. But the Govester did have better news on ventilators as we would now be buying some from EU countries. He said that through gritted teeth.

Stephen Powis, the national medical director of the NHS, looked equally uneasy when called on to make his presentation. Though mainly because he had clearly been designated to find a few graphs that showed the crisis in a more positive light, when he clearly believes the shit has yet to really hit the fan.

So he started off with a slide showing that fewer people were using public transport. That was his best lead off shot.

He then moved on to another slide which apparently showed the UK mortality rate stabilising. Even though the curve appeared alarmingly steep. Powis also – clearly under instructions – chose to ignore why the German and South Korean death figures were so much lower. Eventually, though, his integrity won through.

“These are just green shoots,” he repeated several times. And winter could return at any time to snuff them out. The partial lockdown was essential and here to stay for a while.

And the alt-right libertarian half-wits who were demanding the right to do what they wanted would just have to suck it up. It wasn’t that Powis objected to them killing themselves. It was them taking out the rest of us at the same time with which he had problems.

Inevitably most of the questions focused on the UK’s inadequate testing systems – both for NHS workers and the general public – and the capacity for hospitals to cope with more patients. Here Gove showed himself to be something of a new man.

Normally, Mikey reckons that experts have nothing more of value to say than anything that happens to pop into his head. But under a sustained grilling from journalists, he now chose to answer as few questions as possible.

“I think that’s one for either Stephen or Jenny,” he said. Trying to make it look like courtesy rather than cowardice.

Both Powis and the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, did their best to level with the country. Things were critical but so far the NHS was building capacity and was coping under the strain. Harries did sound a little optimistic about the possibility of home, postal tests – in my neck of the woods we haven’t had a mail delivery for more than a week – but that was her only slight mis-step.

We were where we were and she and Powis would be back tomorrow or the next day to provide further updates. Just who the government would find to front – leadership is asking way too much these days – the roadshow was anyone’s guess.