How Covid has taken the fun out of election campaigns

Election campaigns during a global pandemic aren’t much fun – even with Boris Johnson in town.

Monday, 21st June 2021, 5:30 pm
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ryan Stephenson, Conservative candidate in the Batley and Spen by-election, take a closer look at some of the biscuits being made at the Fox's factory in Batley. Photo by Joel Anderson

In “normal” times Boris would have swept down Commercial Street in Batley town centre, shaking hands, cracking jokes and posing for selfies.

Instead the UK’s ebullient Prime Minister had to rein himself back to adhere to his own Government’s Covid restrictions.

Boris was in Batley to campaign for Tory candidate Ryan Stephenson in a Parliamentary by-election on July 1.

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Mr Johnson was asked which biscuit is his favourite. He picked a jam and cream one. Photo by Joel Anderson

He spent two hours at Fox’s Biscuits and had as much masked-up fun on the production line as he could get away with. But he’d have loved to have made more mischief, you could feel it.

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In pictures: PM tucks into biscuits at Fox's factory in Batley

I was one of just five journalists invited to cover Boris’s visit. Not that I saw any of it.

After filling in a two-page health questionnaire I was ushered to a fourth floor wood-panelled meeting room which was to be our base for the duration.

The Prime Minister visited Kirklees College in Dewsbury earlier in the day, where he tried his hand at an engine repair in the automotive workshop. Photo: Getty Images

We were only likely to get a couple of questions each – well at least that was double what Labour promised when Sir Keir Starmer came to town the week before – and we just had to wait.

And wait. A glamorous job bumping elbows with the PM? Well not really. But I did enjoy the elbow bump.

As I made my way down Wellington Street I passed a group of ladies enjoying the sunshine and a cuppa outside The Gables Café.

I could sense they knew a VIP was due so I stopped to say hello. A couple of the ladies scurried for cover at the sight of a reporter with his notebook but Rita McGarry, 76, a true blue Tory, couldn’t wait for a glimpse of Boris.

Looking for inspiration for my two questions I asked what the ladies would like to ask the PM. “When can we get rid of these things?” said Rita, tugging at her face covering. A good question, the PM would say later.

Café owner Shari Murphy, 49, had bigger concerns on her mind. She doesn’t trust the vaccine and won’t have it. Neither, she said, would her three grown-up children aged 29, 21 and 19.

“They should not be giving people an untested vaccine that’s still in trials for a virus with a 99.7 per cent survival rate,” she said. “We have human rights.

“My daughter works in care and she is panicking over her job. She doesn’t want the vaccine.”

Shari had strong views and I promised both I’d put their questions to the PM.

It was a bit of a wait in the bland meeting room – all masked up with nowhere to go – though there was much excitement when we were each given a Fox’s bag for life and invited to fill it with free biscuits.

Fox’s bakes a staggering three billion biscuits a year. Who knew?

Eventually the wait was over and the PM appeared, his hair not as unkempt as it always looks on the telly. I’m assuming he had a hair net on downstairs.

He’d removed his facemask while we’d been told to keep ours on apart from when asking a question.

“I took mine off, otherwise I will be unintelligible,” he chuckled. “Or even more so.”

Boris is a people person and, regardless of his politics, it’s difficult not to like him. He’s charming, fun, funny and has charisma by the bucketload.

When it was my turn I popped Shari and Rita’s questions. The PM had already praised the vaccination effort in Batley and he urged everyone to get vaccinated.

In response to Shari’s vaccine doubts, the PM said: “This disease has sadly killed many thousands of people in this country and millions around the world. It’s a lethal disease.

“The reason for getting vaccinated is because we will save literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives.

“Whether you think that you are yourself vulnerable or not, you can protect yourself, your family and everybody else. The vaccine has been tested rigorously and the MHRA, the agency we have, is extremely scrupulous and I would urge your contact to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

To Rita’s question about when face masks can be ditched, he said: “Well that’s a very good question. I want them to go as soon as is practical. But in practice some people may continue to wear face masks in certain contexts just as they do in the Far East.”

I followed that with a cheeky third question: “Is it time for us to be brave?”

The PM replied: “You can be brave but you have to recognise that the decision just to open up completely could entail many thousands of deaths and we are being careful how we do it.

“That’s why we have taken the decision to wait a few weeks and get a few million more jabs in people’s arms.”

We’d joked earlier about asking Boris about his favourite biscuit. The reporter who went last couldn’t resist asking.

It was probably the toughest question we’d posed. He bumbled for a bit, clearly not wanting to make a gaffe choosing a biscuit made by a rival of his host.

He eventually settled on the jam cream he’d munched downstairs and said it had “exploded” on him and been rather messy in front of the cameras.

I’m sure Boris wouldn’t have had it any other way. He probably loved every messy second of it.

In “normal” times I’d have been down there to see it and laugh along with him. That’s just one small example of the human moments that Covid has taken away from us all.

Hopefully it won’t be long before those moments are back.