Flight to nowhere: How amber watchlist plan flew into trouble before crashing without a trace

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One government source said that Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, had been pushing the amber watchlist idea for a while - David Cliff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
One government source said that Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, had been pushing the amber watchlist idea for a while - David Cliff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

When Boris Johnson opened his morning newspapers on Monday and read about the travel rules chaos engulfing his administration, it was not hard to follow the breadcrumbs back.

The critical decision that had sent Tory backbenchers and travel industry leaders into a tailspin had been taken the preceding Wednesday, behind closed doors by senior ministers.

It had been championed, according to multiple government sources familiar with discussions, by one politician above all others: Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary.

The idea in question was to announce a new “amber watchlist”, a category to slot into the existing green-amber-red traffic light system for travel.

Green means no quarantine on return for travellers, only a test. Amber is the same for the double-jabbed. But red equals 10 days in forced hotel quarantine, costing £1,750 per adult.

The policy, in theory at least, had some merit. It was unfair, felt those pushing it, for people who were visiting amber countries to suddenly see their status change.

Why not put some countries that were at risk of being reclassified as red on a new “amber watchlist”, so that travellers had a bit more warning that things could change?

There already was something similar being used privately by officials and ministers, pinned to the latest Covid-19 information for each nation provided by the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

And so when the Covid-Operations Cabinet committee – known across Whitehall simply as “Covid-O” – met on Wednesday morning to discuss changes to the travel rules, Mr Shapps put forward his argument.

“This was Grant’s thing,” said one government source. “Grant had been pushing it for a while,” said another. Travel department officials had even submitted formal papers making the case.

Mr Shapps, himself a keen pilot known in the past to fly reporters in his plane, is said to have seen the policy as a genuine way of easing travel woes.

Indeed, not all of those on the video call, hosted on Microsoft Teams, were against the proposal. In fact, one influential Cabinet figure spoke up in its favour, according to multiple government sources: Sajid Javid.

The new Health Secretary, only recently back in government after Matt Hancock’s resignation following the revelation of an affair with an aide, has been characterised as at the “lift the rules” end of the spectrum when it comes to lockdowns.

A former Chancellor himself, while on the backbenches he championed the need to protect businesses and workers from the economic slump triggered by the pandemic.

But on this, Mr Shapps and Mr Javid were in agreement. “It is about trying to give the clearest information possible,” said one person familiar with the Health Secretary’s thinking at the time.

The obstacles ahead

The problem was, in the eyes of critics, clarity was exactly the opposite of what was being offered up to the public.

What started initially as a simple green-amber-red system had now ballooned into one with now fewer than six different categories.

Beyond the three colours, there was already a “green watchlist” for countries at risk of turning amber and an “amber plus” list, specially created just for France and announced late one Friday night, which made even the double-jabbed to quarantine on return.

The amber watchlist would be the sixth. As news dripped out via the media over the coming days, the reaction was not the thumbs up that ministers had been expecting.

Tory MPs bombarded Mr Shapps with phone calls about the travel rules. Some with personal interests – they too wanted trips to the Continent – and others frustrated for constituents.

“This is genuinely vote-losing stuff. People are genuinely p----- off with this,” one Tory MP who spoke to Mr Shapps told The Telegraph.

“There’s no f------ way in the middle of August you can now say to millions of people who are disproportionately Tory voting ‘I’m going to cut your holiday off mid-flow’.”

The nub of the criticism was that far from freeing families of stress about an imminent reclassification, the amber watchlist exacerbated the anxiety.

It effectively put in lights a list of countries which at any moment could switch to red, and with it bring 10 days’ hotel quarantine, without any additional notice.

What should families with August holidays booked in France or Greece or Spain – three countries said to be contenders for being named on the new list – do with the new information?

The fear from the travel industry was clear: mass cancellations. Hence a wave of criticism that soon emanated from leading industry figures.

The backlash escalated over the weekend when The Sunday Times front page revealed that Rishi Sunak had written to the Prime Minister urging an easing of the border rules.

The Chancellor, according to the leak, had warned that the UK risked becoming “out of step with our international competitors” when it came to its border policy.

It later emerged the letter had been written before a major rule change that saw Americans and Europeans jabbed at home able to visit without quarantining, which took effect on Monday. But it turned up the media scrutiny and triggered a mole hunt in Westminster.

Downing Street was at pains to play down any idea of a Number 10-Number 11 rift. “There is not a wafer between them,” said one Whitehall source who sees the Sunak-Johnson relationship up close.

Come Monday morning, frustrations over the travel rules were leading the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme bulletins and reached levels the Prime Minister could not ignore.

Mr Johnson was yet to see the official papers that usually circulate after the Covid-O meeting the preceding Wednesday. By lunchtime on Monday, the amber watchlist was dead.

“What I want to see is something that is as simple and as user-friendly for people as possible,” the Prime Minister told the TV cameras on a visit that afternoon.

Number 10 sources soon confirmed that the words could be read as killing off the amber watchlist.

One senior government source explained: “We have to have a proper border policy in place. But we want to do everything we can to make sure people can have a great summer holiday.”

That position has lasted out the amber watchlist row. But with grumblings over the entire traffic light system now emerging, not to mention the cost of PCR tests and the question of which new countries join the green list, it is a line that is sure to be tested again this summer.

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