Then he let us loose to decorate the classroom windows with paint and balls of rolled-up tissue paper.
The result was a crazy juxtaposition of crude reality and technicolor fantasy. It had much in common with the Government’s constantly shifting response to the coronavirus pandemic.
When, almost in the same breath, the Prime Minister referred to “moonshot” testing, and rolling out new Covid marshals who will be tasked with reporting breaches of coronavirus laws, I was back in that classroom, with a fragile grasp on reality.
I had a sudden image of an astronaut in a hi-vis vest, circling the moon with a clipboard in his hand. That’s what a 1970s childhood did for my imagination but it’s no way to run a country.
Like many people, I suspect, I’d never even heard the word moonshot until last week. I was obliged to look it up. I was surprised to find that some aspects of its etymology are not suitable to repeat in a family newspaper.
Again, I wondered if the Prime Minister and his advisers are familiar with how to use an internet search engine. Checking things first could save them a lot of bother. I was reminded once more of how they had to hastily drop the term “cocoon” early in lockdown when someone twigged it was the name of a Ron Howard film in which elderly people are rejuvenated by aliens.
I think we’re probably safest knowing that moonshot is commonly used in a technology context and is taken to describe an ambitious, exploratory and ground-breaking project so off the wall that the risks, benefits and profitability can’t be calculated.
First rule of government communication: only use words that people are familiar with and totally understand. And the second? Only speak to the public when you have a clear message. When the messages are so mixed that we are being asked to believe two or three inconceivable and contradictory things at the same time, something has gone seriously wrong.
Mr Johnson appears to be reaching for the skies but at the same time bringing down the heavy hand of the law on a disillusioned population.
His idea – if it was his idea – of unleashing this army of marshals in towns and cities to dish out fines if social-distancing measures are flouted, and report pubs and restaurants for not sticking to the rules, was news to many local authorities who will be expected to supply the personnel for this new task force.
Suddenly the Government remembers that councils should have been key front- line organisations in the fight against coronavirus all along. I spoke to many councillors and officials in March and April who were angry and frustrated they had been sidelined by Westminster.
However, this so-called solution poses more questions than answers. Where is the long-term funding and training for these new marshals to come from? Who will form their ranks? Seconded traffic wardens? Will they be press-ganged?
And does Mr Johnson and his elusive Home Secretary, Priti Patel, not realise that one senior police source has already nicknamed them “Covid Wombles” who will simply add pressure to already seriously over-burdened police forces?
I first raised the matter of confusing communication at the end of March when lockdown began to take hold. I hoped that Mr Johnson’s customary bluff and bluster would mature into statesmanlike gravitas.
Understandably, back then, the Government was doing public relations on the hoof and there were huge flaws in what passed for strategy.
Thankfully, it settled down in the simple mantra of “stay home, save lives, protect the NHS”. This was so effective, in fact, that once lodged in the public consciousness it proved doggedly difficult to shift.
Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing, as Mr Johnson reminded Sir Keir “Captain Hindsight” Starmer only the other week at Prime Minister’s Questions. And when the situation is as fast moving as a global pandemic, it’s very difficult to take heed of past mistakes at the same time as gaining forward traction.
However, the Government must learn from its errors of judgement instead of bombarding us with one illogical and impractical notion after another.
Stay home, go back to work. Believe in moonshot miracles, but don’t step out of line. Send your children to school every day to classes of 30 or more, but cancel Christmas.
Only one thing is definitely clear. Faced with such a dizzying array of conflicting messages, the public is no longer listening. And, on that point, Ministers should be worried.
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