You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily policy briefing. Register now to receive it by email in the evening.
What was thought of as a “quiet week” by Boris Johnson is getting louder and louder. Today began with catch-up funding for schools, followed by warnings that simmering unease over international aid cuts will turn into rebellion. To make matters worse, it looks like millions of Britons aren’t going on summer vacation abroad after all.
That is the very sad conclusion that many in the tourism industry have drawn from the grand announcement by Secretary of Transportation Grant Shapps. Moving Portugal from the “green list” to the “yellow list” of travel destinations, albeit with a week’s notice, signals that vacationing abroad is becoming more difficult and not easier, as some had assumed.
Politicians love to use the term “direction of travel,” but that terminology will feel singularly inappropriate to those hoping to end a long and grueling year with at least a break in the Mediterranean sun. It is still possible that in three weeks’ time the numbers in various European countries and islands will have dropped again, but no one is betting on that.
It is worth noting that many Britons cannot or do not want to afford a vacation abroad. But a significant number of them do very well, and several Tory MPs will point out that this is not a middle-class obsession. “My working-class constituents work really hard and save every penny for this week in the sun,” one tells me. “You will wonder why you can’t still do this when you get stung twice.”
One problem lies in the traffic light system developed by the government, or more precisely in its amber part. Since traveling to yellow list countries is legal but not recommended, there is no automatic right to a refund that would be on the red list.
David Davis is another Tory who believes Shapp’s announcement carries political risk. “It’s an irrational overreaction,” he tells me. “If that’s what you want to do, at least make it a green and red scheme so people get their money back.”
Incidentally, that is also Labor’s position. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds says the amber system is just a recipe for confusion, with reports of 50,000 daily trips to the UK, each of which may bring a nasty souvenir in the form 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 of vacation in an amber country like Portugal, Spain or Greece and then use the second week of vacation to quarantine at home before getting a test clearance after five days, which also allows them to take a short trip to the UK .
But only a minority will want to risk it. The real difficulty with the current traffic light system is that it is difficult to distinguish amber-blink-red from amber-blink-green. Designed to provide a careful path from the most unsafe to the safest of environments, it embodies a proportionality of risk that drives Boris Johnson’s thinking. So he probably won’t give it up.
Still, this virus doesn’t respect proportionality, and often the only language that understands it is overwhelming violence (we’ve learned that bans have to be tough and fast). The yellow list is the overseas version of the domestic regional tier system that was developed last year to contain Covid in defined areas. This system failed miserably this winter when the Kent variant staged a fatal march from the southeast across the country.
And again, the virus in and around Bolton and other “hotspots” where the even more transmissible Indian variant was found, showed a clear disrespect for district borders, let alone national borders. The latest figures, showing the huge surge in cases in Blackburn as well as the wider spread of the virus in Lancashire, prove that a new variant is moving fast once it takes hold.
As the Prime Minister ponders what all this means for his June 21 unlock date, history tells us he wants to have his cake and eat it. We shouldn’t forget that the public also likes a bit of cake (European style public services, US level taxes, anyone?), A factor that is often forgotten when some are puzzled as to why Johson is so popular.
The return of bar ordering (in lieu of table service) is viewed as sacrosanct by some of the Prime Minister’s allies, both because it is vital to the pub industry’s economy and because of a sense of normalcy and morality after months of lockdown. The government believes that this simple change would provide the Prime Minister with enough political capital to maintain other restrictions such as working from home and wearing masks on public transport.
Again, the difficulty is that while this may seem reasonable in relation to the risk, a disproportionate response to the Indian or “Delta” variant may really be required. The latest data from Public Health England, confirming the higher transmissibility of the Delta variant, its “significantly higher risk of hospitalization” and its higher vaccine leak, could lead No. 10 to more decisive action.
A short two-week delay (which I already talked about) for all June 21 action is gaining ground in Whitehall as perhaps the better solution, not least because it gives time for more jabs.
With the prime minister getting his second dose today, he must have guessed how much safer the nation would be if as many over-50s as possible had the same protection before they were further unlocked. This delay would be disproportionate to some, but it might as well be smart public health policy.