“We are now in a sprint,” Boris Johnson declared, “a race to vaccinate the vulnerable faster than the virus can reach them.”
But it does not feel like a sprint. It feels like a compulsory cross country run, in which the the entire school is forced to take part, with Johnson as the boisterous middle-aged games master in baggy shorts who keeps telling us, as we puff wheezing through the freezing fog on a darkening winter afternoon, that the winning post will soon be in sight, is in fact just at the top of this long, muddy slope, only for us to find, when we get there, that the end of the race is nowhere to be seen and we have got to keep stumbling forward for an unknown but pretty long period yet.
A number of the runners who have knighthoods, and feel they are so senior they should not be expected take part in this activity just because Johnson tells them to, let him know how angry they are.
Sir Desmond Swayne (Con, New Forest West) objected that pubs cannot sell take-away alcohol, whereas supermarkets can, and asked why the regulations are “pervaded by a pettifogging malice”.
“Pettifogging yes, malicious no,” Johnson replied. Throughout these exchanges, he sought to persuade MPs he is doing all this for the best possible motives.
Sir Graham Brady (Con, Altrincham and Sale), chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, said there should be another vote at the end of January on the regulations, and one at the end of February, rather than waiting until the end of March.
Johnson, somewhat evasively: “I can’t believe it will be until the end of March that the House has to wait.”
Sir Christopher Chope (Con, Christchurch) wondered why octogenarians who have had the vaccine are not permitted to meet, not least in order to celebrate Brexit.
Johnson admitted the regulations are not always logical, but said “they are there to protect the public and I believe the public understands that”.
Here is the cornerstone of the Prime Minister’s defence: that he is carrying the public with him.
Sir Keir Starmer (Lab, Holborn and St Pancras), the Leader of the Opposition, said this is “perhaps the darkest moment of the pandemic”, and added that “the virus is now out of control”.
He wanted to know why “no action was taken for two weeks” after 22nd December, when the information on which the present lockdown is based became known.
Yet in almost his next sentence, he said “we will do whatever we can to support the Government on this”.
So Johnson did not have much difficulty in batting away Sir Keir’s inquiries.
There was no real sense here of a Prime Minister in difficulty. This was partly because the measures he was announcing were already known, and partly because the growing pace of vaccination gives hope that although we find ourselves engaged in a marathon rather than a sprint, one day this ordeal will be over.