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Two cabinet ministers, two audiences, two different messages. On the morning media round, Grant Shapps told Radio 4’s Today that no one should be booking holidays right now “not domestically or internationally”. By the early evening, Matt Hancock was telling the 1922 committee of backbench Tories he had booked his break for Cornwall.
In between, we had a whole variety of messages too. At lunchtime No.10 said booking was “a choice for individuals”, while in his 5pm press conference the PM said it was “just too early” to do anything. Depending on what time of day it was, there was a different answer. You could spin the holiday roulette wheel and have no idea where the ball landed.
But the key is those different audiences. Shapps was being ultra cautious with the voters, preferring to undersell rather than oversell. By contrast, Hancock was keen not to further inflame the ire of Tory backbenchers, many of who feel they have been promised a release from lockdown once the most vulnerable groups were vaccinated.
There’s no question that while most of the public have been stoically putting up with the lockdown for the greater good, there are signs of it fraying. Police this week discovered an illegal drinking den in Bacup, Lancashire, complete with “two surprised sheep”. Three people drove from London to the Peak District because they were “bored” (personally I take the Peter Mannion approach of “I’m bored of this, I’m going for a Twix”).
One other problem for No.10 is that the message from Tory MPs is not united. On the one hand, we have Sir Edward Leigh’s approach to summer holidays, as summed up by his line to Hancock yesterday that the travel and aviation industry were not as important as strong borders and “tough, enforced local lockdowns like China” (I’m not making this up).
On the other, you have MPs like Sir Charles Walker whose anger boiled over today that ministers were shifting the goalposts of unlockdown with talk of waiting for tweaked third doses of vaccines in the autumn. Walker stressed that mental health was crucial, and holidays offered real hope to many of a respite. He added, sombrely, that there were “loads of people thinking about whether it’s worth going on at the moment”.
What is of growing concern to MPs on all sides however is the sheer lack of parliamentary accountability there will be as lockdown slowly eases. The headline-grabbing plan to impose a 10-year-jail sentence on people found lying about overseas travel was a good example. Rather than require new legislation, this relies on the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 and therefore “no requirement for a vote”, No.10 told us.
This is a bit like the government relying on the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to bring in sweeping restrictions via secondary legislation. And in turn, the government bundles all the regulations into one vote, not allowing amendments, so MPs are faced with accepting all the measures or rejecting them all. As we ease out of lockdown, that feels unsustainable.
Boris Johnson and chief scientist Patrick Vallance on Wednesday pointed to the advantages and pitfalls of rapid Covid tests, and as I said last night, it feels like we will all have to get used to twice weekly lateral flow tests becoming part of life. To revive domestic tourism, maybe some hotels and B&Bs will demand a negative test for entry (with full refunds if you test positive) just as airlines will.
As much as everyone likes to look forward to a holiday, what matters most right now of course is the prospect of simply seeing your parents, grandparents and friends after a winter of social isolation. The question of when and whether you can hug the over-70s next month will matter more than whether it’s Cornwall or the Costa del Sol this summer. Simply seeing your relatives will feel like a personal holiday to many.
Don’t forget too the looming rise in unemployment expected this summer. With 3.6 million people on furlough, and the jobless rate already at 5%, there will again be many families who won’t be able to afford a holiday even in the UK, let alone abroad. Talk of summer breaks may leave a bitter taste in their mouths if they feel the government let them down.
We will get probably the first answers to all this in the PM’s review on February 22. Details of visiting your nan on the other side of town (or the country) will matter more than details of visiting a sunspot on the other side of Europe. And Johnson knows that having offered Easter as “the new Christmas”, he faces a huge backlash if he gets it wrong again.