The mixed messaging from the government about travel isn’t just embarrassing – it has real-world consequences
Are you baffled by the government’s “traffic light” system regarding travel? Don’t worry – the government is, too. You might think that, at this stage of the pandemic, Boris Johnson and his team would have grasped the importance of clearly informing the public about what is and isn’t safe; what we can and cannot do. Ambiguity costs lives. They must, surely, know this by now? No such luck, I’m afraid.
So instead, we have the prime minister telling us – “let me be very clear” – that an amber list country (the majority of countries) is “not somewhere you should be going on holiday”, contradicting the environment secretary George Eustice, who had earlier stated that it is fine to visit an amber list country “either to visit family or indeed to visit friends”.
I hate to break it to you, George, but that sounds awfully like a holiday to me.
This mixed messaging from the government isn’t just embarrassing, though – it has real-world consequences. Hundreds of flights destined for amber list countries, including France, Italy, Greece and Spain, have already departed the UK since the “traffic light” system was introduced on Monday.
It is not, shall we say, beyond the realms of possibility that some people on those flights are off on holiday, rather than, as the prime minister’s spokesman insists, travelling “for work purposes, protecting essential services or compassionate reasons such as a funeral or care of a family member”.
One man at Gatwick Airport told Sky News that he and five friends were off to Corfu, which is on the amber list. “I’m still fairly young and fairly active,” he explained. “I haven’t had anything wrong with me, nothing underlying, so for me, a negative test and away you go.” And what about the 10-day quarantine, which all people returning from an amber list country must undertake? “I work from home at the moment, so it’s neither here nor there.”
Good luck to him – and good luck to the estimated five million UK holidaymakers expected to travel to amber list countries this summer. I really mean that, legally they are doing nothing wrong as long as they are following the quarantine rules. This is not an opportunity to point fingers at individuals. We have all no doubt been guilty of finding a bit of wiggle room in the Covid-19 guidelines – which is precisely why the government’s messaging on travel had to be crystal clear. Give us an inch and some of us will take a flight.
As Huw Merriman, the Conservative chair of the Commons transport committee, told The Independent: “Confusion reigns. What’s the point in bringing in a mechanism, labelling amber countries as ‘moderate risk’ and then, by implication, shading them red by telling passengers they shouldn’t even go?”
Of course, though, we know what the point is. We have seen it before (remember Christmas?). The government, petrified of enforcing proper restrictions, provides flimsy guidelines, so that, when things go wrong and another wave of Covid takes hold (and let’s not forget that travellers from all over the world will be mingling at airports), ministers can blame individuals for not following the guidelines, rather than taking responsibility themselves for not acting quickly and robustly enough.
Why else would you make travelling to amber list countries legal but in the next breath tell people not to go there? It’s Johnson’s attempt at cakeism again – and it leaves the potential to make a lot of people very sick.
We needed clear rules on travel, however unpopular they would have been. At a time when the Indian variant of Covid-19 is spreading in many parts of the world, it would have seemed sensible to most people to restrict all but the most essential travel. Unfortunately, it’s too late now. That ship has sailed – or rather, that flight has flown.