I’m a co-operative fellow when it comes to doing one’s bit for the common good. I understood the importance of the lockdown in spring. I remain a team player as we approach autumn and the insidious approach of the inevitable second wave. But there is no escaping the fact that social problems require social solutions and social solutions require leadership. Pragmatic leadership that balances competing risks and delivers policy that can be both understood and reasonably implemented. Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives was a straightforward policy in early spring. The current set of restrictions seem designed to compete with Fermat’s Last Theorem for complexity. The difference between them being that the theorem was eventually solved. The government has simply lost the plot.
We have no leadership. Boris likes to invoke the spirit of Dunkirk and the Blitz. Alas, he and his partner in crime, Dominic Cummings, have looked a lot more Laurel and Hardy than Winston and George. The government has for months been hostage to events, reacting to circumstances that had long overtaken them rather than proactively setting out intelligent and intelligible plans in advance. Ministers jump from definitive policy to random U-turn like jittery smackheads trying to explain their activities in a police interview room.
You’d like an example? Let’s look at international travel. Like most countries, our borders were closed to all but essential travel in early spring. That was easy. Opening up again for tourism has proven a little trickier. Some countries have – thus far – done a better job of containing the virus than others, and the UK has opened air routes to those who’ve brought infection rates down to acceptable levels. Seems a sensible enough idea. Boris promised a traffic light system to assess the risk of each country, so that we might plan trips and keep the aviation and hospitality industries alive. Green for good, Red for no-go and Amber for….well, what Amber means has never been published. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Amber turns out to be a list of places that don’t exist, such as Atlantis and Wakanda. Just in case they do exist. This is 2020 after all. No one knows anything for certain anymore.
The exact science for determining Green and Red seems a little subjective. Both in measuring the factors required to make the assessment and what the assessment means. In essence, while Red does mean no-go, Green seems to mean ‘maybe’ and/or ‘maybe not’. It can change in the blink of an eye. Which isn’t helpful when planning trips. If one returns from a country that is anything but Green, one must quarantine for 14 days. In practice, Grant Schapps, the Minister for Transport, issues his diktats each Thursday by Twitter. If you are in a country that has turned from Green to Red, you have 36 hours or so to return to the UK or else face a quarantine.
Mrs P and I flew out to Portugal last Sunday. Whilst Portugal had gone Green just a week before we travelled, it became apparent, as Portugal’s coronavirus cases increased, that the U.K. government would remove the country from the quarantine exemption list before our return. I monitored flight prices and infection rates earnestly and held off for as long as was sensible. But I bit the bullet on Wednesday, buying a ticket to fly back from Porto to London one day earlier than planned. I couldn’t afford to spend two weeks at home, off work and unpaid, in quarantine. The following day, the Transport Secretary announced the inevitable and those who did leave buying their quarantine avoidance ticket to the last minute were required to hand over three times the cash for a flight home than I did.
I can’t really grumble, I suppose. We flew out to Porto last Sunday well aware that the quarantine requirement was very likely to be reintroduced. We were just glad to be able to go at all. But here I am, writing this from a hotel room at Luton Airport, having arrived back on a ram-packed flight in time to avoid quarantine. I stayed here the night. I’m waiting for Mrs P to arrive back on our originally booked flight. She, being a person who is currently working from home and can afford to quarantine, stayed in Porto for the full duration of our holiday.
There is, of course, a huge irony to the whole process. You might have spotted it already. In a couple of hours I will meet Mrs P in Arrivals, we will go to our car and I will drive us home. She stayed a few hours more in Porto, but returned on a far quieter flight than I. Yet she will quarantine, whilst I mingle with the hot polloi at will. The rules and restrictions are meant to be about risk reduction, not elimination, whilst trying also to enable social and economic activity to continue as far as is practicable. But that is not what is happening.
It seems to me that it would be much better policy as far as risk reduction is concerned to allow travellers on one or two week trips to return as and when they originally intended. It allows for greater planning on our part, and avoids the crowded airports and flights that are the inevitable result of imposing short notice deadlines. It would also, of course, be better policy to use airport based virus testing to reduce or eliminate the need for quarantine. But that may be asking too much of a British government that has done little to suggest any meaningful level of competence at anything.
And besides, quarantine isn’t particularly onerous. Not in a practical sense. Whilst one is meant to stay indoors 24/7, there are permitted exceptions, as detailed by Her Majesty’s government. If you feel your eyes need testing, you can of course go on a long drive to a beauty spot for a day out. Also, you are allowed to break the quarantine law at any time and for any reason that suits you, provided that you do so in a very specific and limited way. This might sound crazy. But this is the consequence of political leadership that ignores the concept of consequence.