Priti Patel’s answers are not so much a word salad as a motorway pile-up involving only Ocado vans

Tom Peck
10 Downing Street/AFP/Getty

At the 5pm Downing Street press conference, the home secretary Priti Patel was asked by The Independent whether it was right that foreign NHS doctors and nurses are being given automatic visa extensions to carry on fighting coronavirus, but that lower-paid NHS workers, like hospital porters and cleaners, are not.

I have gone to the not insignificant trouble of typing out Patel’s reply in full:

“Rob, thank you for your question, and again, as I’ve just said, already the work that we’re seeing across the NHS is just absolutely incredible, erm, and I’ve also just made the point as well that, you know, this is difficult in terms of, we’ve seen the complexities around immigration, but right across the immigration system through these unprecedented times and challenges we are supporting frontline health workers, social care workers, and obviously we are finding ways in which we can support other workers as well across the NHS. Our immigration system is incredibly complex and I have said that I am looking at various schemes. We keep everything under review. In fact, this point was made earlier this year with the Law Commission’s own report on immigration rules where our immigration system is complex. I want to simplify some of these rules, I really do, so we are now looking at what changes we can bring in, very much in the same way, as was announced yesterday, around the immigration health surcharge I am working across government with my colleagues to look at what we can do in this particular space.”

That is not so much what is known as a word salad as a word jambalaya. If words really were foods, Priti Patel’s answers are what you imagine you might see in a freak motorway pile-up involving only Ocado vans.

Sometimes it is very easy indeed to forget that the point of the 5pm daily press conference is for the government to explain to the public what is going on with coronavirus. It exists as a method of reassuring us that everything, insofar as it can be, is under control.

For that reason, it is arguably fair enough that in what is now almost three full months, the government’s most senior woman, the home secretary Priti Patel, has been allowed to appear three times.

It’s not merely that nobody could possibly be reassured by Patel, who exudes the kind of easy air of being so comfortably on top of everything that she is reminiscent of one particular moment on British television in 2006, when BBC News accidentally featured a live interview with Congolese IT technician Guy Goma.

It’s that even Boris Johnson has evidently worked out that you can’t ask anyone to explain something if their general outlook is to perceive all requests for information as criticism, before then refusing to impart any.

If you saw Priti Patel in the street and asked her the time, you would expect to hear something like the following:

“Thank you for question. As you know, the time is very important. Knowing the time is how hard-working British people get to the places they need to be, at the exact same moment as other people they are meant to be meeting at those places. I will be looking, across government, into ways in which the time can be known, and then, where appropriate, rolled out to people who’ve asked to be told the time, in the street, by me. Ordinary hard-working British people all over the country know that they need to know the time, and we are here to support them, throughout this crisis. I really think that, I really do.”

At least with Theresa May, whatever was asked of her, she would just reply “strong and stable” and be done with it. To listen to Priti Patel is like being stuck on a slow-moving conveyor belt past meaningless, disconnected words.

Asked a very specific question, about how people are meant to socially distance from one another at popular outdoor places, to which they have been expressly encouraged to drive and visit by the prime minister himself, the only vaguely transcribable bit of the answer was: “This is a beautiful time of year as we all know, and we all enjoy being outdoors.”

In any event, the home secretary’s main announcement was that from 8 June, people arriving in Britain will have to self-isolate for 14 days. We would learn how self-isolation was now far more important in preventing the spread of coronavirus, now that, for example air passenger arrivals are down to 1 per cent of what they were at the start of the year, and the rate of infection has reduced by two-thirds, compared to when she herself removed the very restrictions on 12 March.

It’s only now, you see, that people arriving in the UK with coronavirus have the potential to trigger a widespread outbreak. Back when, for example, 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans came to Liverpool to watch their team play, having already been banned from watching them in Madrid itself, that was different.

Or maybe it wasn’t different. Who knows? Maybe it’s all just noise.

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