Game of Numbers ( Tom Williams )

Posted by Barabal on Tuesday, April 28. 2020 in April 2021

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Game of Numbers 

The Prime Minister takes his seat at the Cabinet table. All the video screens are on.


“Right. Let’s get started.”


The daily ritual starts. First there is the Press Conference – or the Daily Numbers, as it is generally
known. Of course, nowadays there is no actual press. ( There are, after all, no actual newspapers 
- an early casualty of what is officially known as the Great Chinese Plague. )


“For today’s numbers …” The Prime Minister looks solemnly at the camera. “We have Priti Patel.”
Patel was a wiz with numbers. That’s what they kept her on for. It was the only time she was ever
seen. There were rumours that she was being kept in a storage unit somewhere, waiting all day 
for her chance to read the Daily Number.


“What’s the number today, Priti?”


The feed switched to a storage unit somewhere and the erstwhile Home Secretary’s face appeared.


“Eleventy thousand two hundred and twumpty, five thousand six hundred and two.”


The screen switches again and Laura Kuenssberg’s face appears. She wasn’t a journalist anymore:
she had been elevated to the House of Lords and now sat in the Cabinet. After all, the Prime 
Minister reasoned, after so many years of representing the Government, it was only fair that she 
be put on the payroll.


“That number is a number,” says Kuenssberg. “But is the government confident that it is the 
number we need?”


“It’s a very good number,” replies the Prime Minister. “But I’m confident that it will be ramped 
up. Probably by the end of March.”


“It’s April,” says Kuenssberg, her old journalistic skills kicking in from force of habit.


“I said May,” says the Prime Minister.


“I’m so sorry,” says Kuenssberg. “I must have misheard.”


The Prime Minister gives her a forgiving smile and makes a mental note to have her medication
increased. “Didn’t you have a question about deaths in care homes, Laura?”


“Did I?” An arm appears on the screen that shows Laura’s face and a sheet of paper flutters onto
 the desk in front of her.  "Oh, yes. I wanted to know if there had been any improvement on 
deaths in care homes."


“I'm glad you asked me that question. I have to report that 87% of the residents in care homes 
have succumbed to the virus but we can do better. We have arranged for more care assistants to
visit. Thousands of additional care assistants are being recruited and each on will now visit a 
dozen homes every week. Obviously we can’t provide screening immediately, but we will get to it 
soon – probably by the end of …” He checks a note in front of him. “May. We’re ramping up to 
achieve that. And I am confident that by the end of May there will be no more old people dying in
 care homes. Isn’t that so, Chief Scientific Advisor?”


The video switches to a harassed looking middle aged man. “If we look at this graph…” He 
gestures vaguely at a graph at the side of the screen. “We can see this red line shows a decline
 in the number of old people dying in care, until it reaches zero by the end of May.”


“Yes,” says the PM. “It’s very exciting. And the blue line reaches zero by the end of May as well.
That’s how ramped up we're going to be. What is the blue line, Chief Scientific Adviser?"


"That's the number of surviving old people in care homes."


The PM doesn’t miss a beat. He’s an old hand at these press conferences now. He just moves on to
the next question. No need to wait for Kuenssberg to ask it. No, press straight on. Efficiency, 
that’s the thing. No time to waste.


“Much the same is true of prisons, except we won’t be employing care assistants obviously. But 
we will be testing. Everybody, every day. Actually, we will be using some of the care assistants
for that too, only obviously they won’t be in a caring role. No caring at all. And no masks. What 
do  you think the result of that will be, Chief Scientific Adviser?”


“Well, as you can see in this graph…” He gestures vaguely again.


A voice is heard off-screen. “We haven’t changed the graph.”


“Haven’t we?” The Chief Scientific Officer turns and peers at it. “No worries. They’re pretty much
identical really.”


The PM looks solemn as he faces the camera. “Well, that’s today’s press briefing. Remember, if
you’re not out earning, we need you to stay home. Save money. Save the NHS.”


There is a round of applause from the video screens scattered around the cabinet table


"That was masterful, if I may say so."  The PM recognises the oleaginous voice of the Chief Lackey
and nods a polite acknowledgement towards Michael Gove’s screen.


“PMQs next, isn’t it?”


“Indeed, yes.” Gove’s voice is like treacle, only treaclier, as if he had gargled with treacle and 
now spewed it forth in praise of the PM.


PMQs used to be a nightmare, but since the Parliamentary reforms following the Great Chinese
Plague, the PM had quite come to enjoy them. He often answered questions from the Cabinet 
Room rather than travel the few hundred yards to the House. You never knew, there was always
 the outside chance of passing a voter. Best not risk it.


The video shows the chamber with the 50 selected MPs carefully spaced apart. Ever since that
awkward moment when one of his backbenchers had been seen exchanging a friendly nod with
one of the Opposition, more care had been taken to enforce social distancing. Now every MP is
accompanied by someone from the Whips’ Office wearing full hazmat protection. They carry a
symbolic whip tucked into a belt on the suit and a not-at-all-symbolic Taser holstered alongside it.
It was a while since anybody had heckled the Prime Minister.


There are the usual questions from friendly back-benchers asking if the Prime Minister would 
accept the humble gratitude of their constituencies for one measure or another. Much is made of 
the fact that the chocolate ration has been increased. The Speaker calls various Opposition MPs 
to speak and there are the usual technical problems that render their questions inaudible.


David Lammy somehow bypasses the system to get his question in, but it is only about deaths 
among the homeless, so it doesn’t matter. Ever since the homeless were rounded up and put 
into temporary dormitories back at the beginning of the plague, nobody has heard any more
from them. Lammy’s question will be forgotten even quicker than they were.


Mark Francois is called and the PM can just make out the crown of his head at the bottom of the 
video screen. “Is the Prime Minister not concerned that deaths amongst the black and ethnic 
minority community are so much greater than others?”


For a moment he is confused. It wasn’t a question he expected from Francois. Then he realises his
mistake. “I can assure the honourable member that our experts are looking hard at why deaths
amongst ethnic minorities are so much higher than amongst Eastern European workers. Be assured
that they hope to see this differential eroded soon.”


Francois sits down. The PM can’t see his face but he can imagine the satisfied smile.


“Statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.”


The PM beams. He’d forgotten this bit was coming up today. It’s all good news: pension payments
down, prison spending down. Even welfare for the unemployed is down as the new zero 
immigration policy combined with the substantial reduction in the size of the workforce has more
than compensated for the number of jobs lost in the economic readjustment. He wished people 
would remember to call it a readjustment and not a crash. It was only a crash if you had 
neglected to sellshort as soon as that Chinese fellow had eaten the bat. Really, people who had
lost money had only themselves to blame.


Sometimes people were so damned ungrateful. Fortunately there was no danger of protests, with
public gatherings limited to five people and those to remain the regulation two metres apart. And
the checks on ‘essential shopping’ helped too. Only the other day it seems that a suspicious 
looking couple had been into Foyles – ostensibly to pick up a colouring book for entertainment in 
lockdown – and had emerged with a copy of the works of Karl Marx. Quite shocking really. What 
can you do with such people? There was that suggestion that they could use them for a special 
series of I’m a Celebrity … to be filmed in a tiger reserve. It would go some way to filling the TV 
schedules since they’d been unable to restart production. Bloody actors complaining about 
needing to socially distance on set.


Bloody actors, bloody voters. It was all too much. Time to calm down.


He took a pocket mirror: it wouldn’t do to scratch the Cabinet table. Tradition and all that. A few
seconds later he was busy with a razor blade. He made three neat lines and curled a £20 note to
make a straw. Tradition again.


He hoovered up the coke.


God, he loved being Prime Minister.


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