Thérèse Coffey: Covid deaths are basically UK’s fault for being old and fat

Thérèse Coffey is normally a glass half-full kind of minister. Sent out to do the media round on Monday morning, she even managed to claim to LBC’s Nick Ferrari that getting just 1,868 young people – out of a targeted 120,000 – starting roles on the government’s kickstarter scheme had “actually been a huge success”. I hate to think what a massive failure might look like.

But even the work and pensions secretary struggled when she came up against Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Having first delivered the classic line that “the best way to tackle this virus is to avoid contracting it in the first place” – no shit – Coffey made the elementary error of giving a direct answer to a direct question.

Other ministers have gone to great lengths to appear totally mystified and avoid saying why the UK has the highest coronavirus death rate in the world, but Coffey just jumped straight in. It was because we had an ageing population and an obesity crisis. So it was basically our own fault and we had it coming. We were living far too long and eating far too much. If only we had all died younger or half-starved to death, then all of this could have been avoided. The humanity in her response was touching.

Morgan couldn’t believe his luck. So what you’re saying, he observed, was that we Brits were basically too old and too fat. Whereupon the minister completely lost it and accused Morgan of being insulting for repeating back what she had just said. Only Coffey wouldn’t have it. Apparently there was no link between an ageing population and people getting old and a population getting obese and being fat. Or maybe she was just irritated with herself for failing to mention a succession of failures in government policy that had considerably boosted the mortality rate.

Whichever it was, Thérèse spent the next two minutes trying to distance herself from ever having brought up “old” and “fat”. Morgan was just trying to twist her words. What she had meant by ageing was an important boom in senior living. And by obese she had meant that under the Tories there was no longer anyone going hungry; it was just a coincidence that the poorest people tended to have the worst diets.

Realising that what she had hoped would be an easy interview had turned into a car crash, Coffey just reached for the off switch on her Zoom call. It’s one way of terminating an interview, I suppose. If not one generally found in the politician’s handbook. Time’s up, got to go, she said desperately before her screen went dead. “Wow,” Morgan commented. Wow indeed. It’s not often that the TV presenter is lost for words. It had been eight months since Coffey had last been on GMB. Don’t hold your breath for another appearance in the next eight months.

How Coffey must wish she was sometimes let loose in No 10 as Matt Hancock had a rather more comfortable time when fronting the Downing Street press conference. Largely because he had nothing new to say and because he was able to ignore any questions that felt remotely tricky. Rather he – along with the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, and Public Health England’s Susan Hopkins – eased their way through the 45-minute session as if it was a cosy fireside chat.

A few harsh reminders that the virus was far from beaten and that people still needed to obey the rules, interspersed with the good news that more than 6.5m vaccinations had been given and that the early evidence was that the vaccine was effective against the UK variant.

This was the ideal gig for the health secretary. Normally he’s sent out when there’s a crisis of some sort going on. But now we’ve got so used to every day being near enough a crisis, that when things stay more or less the same and the death and hospitalisation figures are slightly lower then it’s cause for celebration in No 10. Even though the numbers would have been considered completely terrifying if anyone had mentioned them as a possibility even a month ago.

Disaster has become the new normal, so when things are no worse than they were the day before it almost feels as if a corner has been turned. And over the course of the pandemic, Door Matt has become quite accomplished at sounding reassuring yet resolute. Or maybe our expectations of him and other ministers have become so low we now mistake mediocrity for comfort.

It also helps when no one actually asks any tricky questions. Had Hancock been asked the killer Coffey question of why the UK has the highest global death figures then he might have struggled. Instead he was asked when the lockdown restrictions might be lifted – though no one mentioned schools – and was quite easily able to point out that rather depended when deaths, hospitalisations, variants and vaccines co-aligned. It appears the rate of infection is no longer part of the equation.

He also hinted that he was in favour of quarantine hotels for all arrivals – not just for those from areas with known variants, without having either to specify how many beds they expected to need or why the government had taken so long to come round to this idea. In fact, by the end, Door Matt even looked as if he was rather enjoying the press briefing. For the rest of us, it had been three-quarters of an hour of our lives we would never get back. Still, there are days when even Hancock gets an even break. And as Coffey will tell you, there are advantages to being dull.

The Guardian

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