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What was meant to be Boris Johnson’s ‘quiet week’ just keeps on getting noisier. Today started with a kicking over catch-up funding for schools, swiftly followed by warnings that the simmering unease over international aid cuts is ready to boil over into rebellion. To top it all, it looks like millions of Britons won’t be getting a summer holiday abroad after all.
That’s the very downbeat conclusion many in the tourism industry have drawn from transport secretary Grant Shapps’ big announcement. Shifting Portugal from the “green list” to the “amber list” of travel destinations, albeit with a week’s notice, signals that holidays overseas are getting harder, not easier as some had assumed.
Politicians love using the phrase “direction of travel”, but that terminology will feel singularly inapt for those who had pinned their hopes on ending a long and gruelling year with at least a break in the Mediterranean sunshine. It’s still possible that in three weeks’ time the numbers may have fallen again in various European countries and islands, but no one is banking on it.
It’s worth pointing out that many Brits can’t afford or don’t want a foreign holiday. But a sizeable number of them very much do, and several Tory MPs will point out this is not some middle class obsession. “My working class constituents work bloody hard and save every penny for that week in the sun,” one tells me. “They’ll wonder why the hell they can’t still do that if they’re double jabbed.”
One problem lies in the traffic light system devised by the government, or more particularly, the amber bit of it. Because travel to amber list countries is legal, though not advised, there is no automatic right to a refund that would occur on the red list.
David Davis is another Tory who thinks there are political risks with Shapps’ announcement. “This is an irrational overreaction,” he tells me. “If you’re going to do this, at least make it a green-red system so people can get their money back.”
As it happens, that’s Labour’s position too. Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds says the amber system is just a recipe for confusion, with reports of 50,000 travelling into the UK daily, each possibly bringing back a nasty souvenir in the shape of an infectious new variant of the virus.
I suspect that some Brits will actually hedge their bets by splitting up what would have been a fortnight abroad. They could take a risk on the first week holidaying in an amber country like Portugal, Spain or Greece, then using their second week’s holiday to quarantine at home before getting a test release after five days that lets them take a short trip in the UK too.
But only a minority will want to risk that. The real difficulty with the current traffic light system is that it’s hard to tell amber-flashing-red from amber-flashing-green. It is designed to offer a careful route from the most unsafe to the most safe environments and embodies a proportionality of risk that drives Boris Johnson’s thinking. That’s why he probably won’t ditch it.
Yet this virus doesn’t respect proportionality, and often the only language it understands is overwhelming force (we’ve learned lockdowns have to be hard and fast). The amber list is the overseas version of the domestic regional tiers system designed last year to contain Covid in defined areas. That system failed miserably this winter in the face of the Kent variant, which staged a deadly route march out of the south east across the whole country.
And again in and around Bolton and other “hotspots” where the even more transmissible Indian variant was found, the virus has shown a marked disrespect for borough boundaries, let alone national borders. The latest figures showing the big jump in cases in Blackburn, plus the wider spread of the virus across Lancashire, proves that once a new variant gets a foothold it moves fast.
As the PM ponders what this all means for his June 21 unlockdown date, history tells us he will want to have his cake and eat it. We shouldn’t forget that the public too quite like a bit of cakeism (European style public services, US-level taxes, anyone?), a factor that’s often forgotten when some are baffled why Johson is so popular.
The return of ordering at the bar (instead of table service) is seen by some of the PM’s allies as sacrosanct, both because it is vital to the economics of the pub industry and more importantly vital to some sense of normality and boosted morale after months of lockdown. There’s a view in government that this simple change would buy the PM enough political capital to keep in place other restrictions, like working from home and mask wearing on public transport.
The difficulty again is that while that may seem sensibly proportionate to the risk, a disproportionate response to the Indian or “delta” variant may be what’s really needed. The latest data from Public Health England, confirming the delta variant’s higher transmissibility, its “significantly higher risk of hospitalisation” and its higher vaccine escape, could force firmer action from No.10.
A short, two-week delay (which I’ve talked about before) for all the June 21 measures is gaining traction in Whitehall as perhaps the better solution, not least because it gives time for ramping up more jabs.
As the PM had his second dose today, he must have thought just how much safer the nation would be if as many over-50s as possible had the same protection before further unlockdown. That delay would be disproportionate to some, but may be just smart public health policy as much as smart politics.