Freedom isn’t free, as they sing in Team America: World Police, there’s a hefty f***in’ fee, and the British people are once again picking up the tab for their itinerant prime minister, who loves freedom so much he has been unable to do the bare minimum to ensure its swift return.
The shift of Portugal from the green list of holiday destinations to amber, and the addition of absolutely no new countries to said green list, is something of a hammer blow to the nation’s holiday plans for the second summer in a row.
“So what?” has been a somewhat stock response. A foreign holiday is not a human right. There’s a pandemic on. What’s wrong with a holiday in the UK? (This response has typically come from people who haven’t quite noticed that a nice holiday cottage in Cornwall costs roughly three times as much as a week on the Algarve.)
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has been on the radio, essentially admitting that cracking down on foreign travel is a sacrifice we must endure to ensure domestic unlocking on the anointed day of 21 June.
This is all very well, but numerous questions arise. Cracking down on foreign travel is what Australia and New Zealand did in the early days of the pandemic, to the extent that Australians abroad have been banned from returning home for more than a year. They have, as a result, for the most part, enjoyed the benefits of a relatively normal life.
The UK, on the other hand, spent those early days flying in high numbers of Covid-19 cases from Spain and Italy, with absolutely no border checks at all. In the less early days, even when the region of Lombardy was sealed off from the rest of Italy, it was not sealed off from Heathrow airport.
They’ve learned their lesson now though, apparently, which is why, between the months of January and April this year, during lockdown, fully 1.59 million people arrived in the UK, 1.09 million of them foreign nationals.
There is no clear answer as to how much of this counts as “essential travel”. A foreign national arriving in the UK may very well be driving a lorry full of food supplies. But there is nevertheless a compare and contrast exercise available.
George Woodall is a Manchester City fan. He flew to the Champions League final in Porto at the weekend, tested positive for coronavirus, and is now in an Airbnb in Portugal for two weeks. By the time those two weeks have expired he will be back in the UK, Portugal will be off the green list, so he’ll be quarantining at home for a further two weeks.
QPR fan Michael Gove also flew to the match between Manchester City and Chelsea. He has since been alerted by his Covid-19 tracking app that he has potentially been exposed to the virus, but he is fortunate enough to now be taking part in a “workplace pilot scheme”, that workplace being Downing Street, so will be tested every day in the office instead.
(You might think Downing Street might not be the best place to run a pilot scheme for a deadly infectious disease. Still, it’s an improvement on last year, when Dominic Cummings freely admitted on live TV that he thought he had Covid-19 so went home, then came back to No 10 later that day, then went to Durham, a course of action which meant everybody else who works in Downing Street, namely the entire cabinet, then had to go on social media to say was absolutely fine.)
It’s also clear that a certain amount of luck is involved. The UK was uniquely banjaxed by its own, home-brewed Kent variant last Christmas, though its spread was made worse by Boris Johnson’s refusal to tell families they just couldn’t get together at Christmas, a refusal that undoubtedly cost many such people their lives, as the chief medical officer warned them it would.
India has been devastated by its own, even more pernicious variant. That the UK has managed to import sufficient amounts of that variant from India to compel France to ban all but essential travel from the UK is not bad luck. It’s bad governance. It’s thousands of direct flights landing from India, for long months after its neighbours, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, were placed on the red list even though their infection rates were far lower.
Holidays abroad in a pandemic are not a human right, but the expectation that a government will do what it says it will do is a basic democratic one.
At the end of April, Grant Shapps told parliament that he was looking into setting up a “green watch list”, which would provide two weeks’ notice for a country being removed from said list. That was six weeks ago. There is no green watch list, just a mad scramble home from Portugal, and Robert Jenrick going on the radio to say that “events are moving quite quickly”. Which they might be, but they have been for quite a while now. Events moving rather quicker than foreseen was what happened almost 14 months ago, when, in the words of the government’s most senior adviser at the time, “thousands died needlessly”.
Still, in a very literal sense, what is a foreign holiday anyway, if not a pilot scheme? Maybe Michael Gove will be able to help.