The confusion dates back almost a month, to a press conference at which the health secretary, Matt Hancock, revealed that he has booked a summer holiday in Cornwall. In the following weeks other ministers made more cautious statements. But the seed was sown, and this week the contradiction at the heart of the government’s message to the public about summer 2021 burst into the open. On Wednesday, the same evening that Boris Johnson agreed with his more prudent colleagues that it was “just too early” to plot getaways, Mr Hancock was joking with colleagues on a Zoom call about why he had picked Cornwall over Devon.
The tension is natural enough, at a human level. Politicians, like other people who can afford it, are keen to travel again. Many of us are sick of our flats and houses and look forward to a change of scene. Christmas and other festivals have been sad occasions for some people, particularly those who live alone or far from loved ones. It feels almost too much to bear that another six months could pass before the pressure to stay indoors, and away from our friends and families, is eased. As we reported this week, plenty of people have taken the plunge and booked breaks in Britain, while recognising that foreign travel is off limits and cancellation a possibility.
But as the man in charge of the nation’s health, Mr Hancock is someone who the public ought to be able to look to for an example, and his announcement of holiday plans was ill-advised. The incoherence was compounded by his announcement in the House of Commons, this week, of 10-year jail terms for anyone found to have lied on the passenger locator forms which people must fill in on returning to the UK from abroad. The impression is of a government blowing hot and and cold, from reckless optimism one minute to punitive overreaction the next.
Mr Hancock is far from the only culpable party in this latest sorry chapter of the UK’s pandemic response. Agitation from the right of the Tory party, and its supporters in the press, continues to undermine wise policymaking, goading ministers with calls to stop being so careful and set people free. The travel industry has an overwhelming short-term interest in such arguments winning out. Britons are extremely frequent flyers, with more people taking flights abroad in 2018 than any other nationality (when domestic flights are counted, Americans fly the most by far). While a minority of wealthy people are disproportionately responsible for the UK’s high volume of air traffic, tourism businesses require millions of bookings annually if they are to survive. Last year, the boss of Heathrow, John Holland-Kaye, warned that parts of west London are at risk of resembling “a mining town in the 1980s” due to tens of thousands of threatened job losses.
The climate emergency, as well as huge challenges of the pandemic, mean that domestic tourism must in future become a bigger part of people’s lives, relative to foreign travel. In the UK and Europe, rail journeys rather than air should become the default. Investment in British resorts, including the seaside towns which have suffered in recent decades, would bring social, environmental and economic benefits. It is possible that further progress on vaccinations could enable some trips to be made this year, giving such places a much-needed boost. But for the moment, hard though it is, we must combine our hopes for the holiday season with patience.