Ministers and the press must be honest about what it takes to defeat the virus
First it was Spain. On the evening of the 25th of July, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that travelers from the Mediterranean country must isolate for 14 days upon their arrival. Those who refuse to comply face fines of up to £5,000, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) insisted they “can’t make apologies” to those scrambling to return home in the six hours before the measures took force. Even Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was caught up in the resulting mess.
Then it was France. Britons’ second most popular holiday destination followed Belgium, the Bahamas and Luxembourg in being removed from the FCO’s list of “lower risk” countries, for which self-isolation is not required upon return. With virtually no warning, thousands of disgruntled holidaymakers were forced into a hasty retreat across the Channel, fearful of the costs quarantine may impose upon their families. Any prospect of a summer getaway vanished in an instant.
Yet another screeching U-turn from a blundering administration?
* * *
The Opposition certainly thought so, branding the move “shambolic” and adding that the decision “tells you everything you need to know about the government’s approach”. Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary called for urgent financial support for those forced to isolate, all whilst his party’s ministers in the Welsh Government introduced identical curbs on its own returning travelers. Quite what Labour’s own approach was remained decidedly unclear, except for the refrain that Boris’ approach was a shambles.
And the press enthusiastically agreed, with the same outlets which called vociferously for Raab to impose restrictions back in May now standing agog as the government finally took their appeals at face value. Numerous front pages shrieked of ‘imposition’ or ‘surprise’ that a country with double the UK’s rate of infections and an uncontrolled outbreak in Catalonia had been subjected to fresh restrictions. One moment the cabinet was condemned for its complacency, the next for its decisiveness.
But the government pushed back strongly, pointing to seven confirmed cases amongst travelers returning from Spain and defending its “swift decision” as a necessary step to prevent a second wave in the United Kingdom. Yet why it took a second decision to block travel to the Balearics, a Spanish island chain with infection rates far lower than Britain, is anyone’s guess. To complete the set? To ensure two blissful, Shapps-free weeks? Probably the second.
One thing was clear: no one had any idea what they were doing.
* * *
No one ever did. Since the Prime Minister first announced that he would begin to ease lockdown in early May, the drive to ‘normality’ has been as perverse as it has been mismanaged. The focal point of press speculation was not the reopening of schools, nor the resumption of cancer treatment. Of course not. Instead, headline after headline whined about when we could have our next pint or jet off to Ibiza.
And the rot ran deep. A quick search of the online database Factiva reveals that British newspapers discussed the implications of the pandemic on our holidays more than twice as often as they did those upon cancer treatment in the period following Boris Johnson’s announcement. Most egregiously, the papers coined the idiotic term ‘Super Saturday’ to describe the re-opening of most pubs, with predictably disastrous results. The priorities of Westminster’s media class were plain to see.
As were those of the travel industry, whose ‘Quash Quarantine’ campaign brought together over 500 operators just days after the FCO introduced mandatory self-isolation for holidaymakers in early June. British Airways even had the audacity to drag the FCO to court over the long-overdue policy with a clear record of saving lives across the globe, most notably in New Zealand. Under pressure, the government cracked. Whitehall bought the lie that the British people were desperate to go abroad hook, line and sinker.
But the public did not, with YouGov polling revealing that foreign travel was Britons’ last priority for re-opening, tied with allowing crowds at festivals and sports fixtures. Schools were always top of the list. And yet here we are; Britain’s education system remains conspicuously under lock and key. I suppose it must have been downgraded along the way. Having lost months of schooling, students hold little more than the spluttered reassurances of one Gavin Williamson that their teaching will resume come September. All for a pint and a day at the beach.
That our government’s priorities have been so maliciously petty is a matter of national disgrace.
* * *
They needn’t have been so. By shutting out press and industry yammering, a level headed administration could have carefully diagnosed the public mood. Instead they chose the path of least resistance, acquiescing to those in their immediate circles rather than consulting the people they are elected to serve.
And yes, the government botched their messaging. I feel deeply sorry for those families stuck at the border, having earnestly sought a well-earned break from the hardships of lockdown under the state-sponsored misapprehension that they could do so safely and securely. Their plight is the result of months of ministerial cowardice and cynical manipulation by those who sought to sway them.
But we need a dose of honesty right now from those in positions of influence. We don’t need to go abroad. We don’t want to go abroad. We shouldn’t be going abroad. This should never have been allowed to happen.
‘Foreign travel during a pandemic.’ It just sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?
That’s because it is.