Yesterday’s news that the government had still yet to sign a single contract with a hotel for its quarantine scheme felt puzzling. Traditionally, politicians have been experts at booking cheap hotel rooms in a hurry. Maybe they’ve been disincentivised in this case by the absence of a sex worker tapping her watch.
Today, however, Minister for Everything Matt Hancock confirmed hotel quarantine would come into effect on Monday, but only for arrivals from the 33 red-listed countries, and for a very British 10 days, not the safer standard of 14. Anyone lying about coming from a red-list country “could face 10 years in jail” – the magic number also notionally applied to those found illegally streaming football matches, or damaging war memorials. It’s always 10 years.
Even so, borders are starting to look like Boris Johnson’s next big Covid mistake. Actually, “next” implies a linear quality to Johnson’s coronavirus cock-ups, when really we experience them cyclically. Perhaps even rhythmically. Today’s breaking news of compulsory Covid tests for international travellers isolating after arrival felt … somewhat belated? At this point in February 2021, it’s like we’ve fallen through some tear in the space-time continuum, and are now experiencing February 2020 as we should have done. And not as we did.
Unfortunately, February 2021 is happening concurrently. Today’s Daily Express front page features a righteously emotional woman – surprisingly, I’m not talking about Princess Di – who this week flew into the UK from South Africa (via Qatar) and claimed to have walked through Heathrow in 10 minutes, without a single check. “I was in tears,” she told the paper. “I just couldn’t believe what happened.”
You know things are bad because a lot of ministers can be found fighting their way to TV cameras and radio mics to explain that actually the responsibility for the quarantine plan is Matt Hancock’s. Because really, what isn’t? Johnson’s failure to split the health secretary role into three or four more manageable briefs is one of the biggest delivery howlers of the pandemic.
It’s fair to say Matt Hancock has spent the last year seemingly having quite a lot on. But what are most of the rest of them doing? The other day there was a Commons debate concerning the ongoing scandal of flammable cladding, a full three-and-a-half years after 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire. Yet instead of 3D-printed cabinet minister Robert Jenrick gracing the discussion with a personal appearance, two junior ministers – one of whom had been in post a full 15 days – were sent instead.
Where is Jenrick? Is he in Dubai or something? That’s starting to feel like the only explanation that makes sense – and would also shed light on why the government dragged its feet so painfully over hotel quarantine. No cabinet influencer left behind.
In the meantime, at least 10 ministers are currently secretary of state for saying, “yeah, that’s actually Matt Hancock’s responsibility”. I note that every now and then, foreign secretary Dominic Raab breaks cover to tweet something sympathetic about a natural disaster or something. But then again, so do junior Hollyoaks actors.
We do get the occasional glimpse of the prime minister, who was wheeled out this week for a visit to Derby, where we were given yet another opportunity to see Boris Johnson dressed up in a white coat. I think he’s supposed to appear medical and scientific, but only ever succeeds in looking like he’s got a lovely bit of pork cheek he can do you for £3.50. It was while he was offering to chuck in some beef liver – just because you’re looking so lovely today, my darling – that the prime minister explained that there was no point closing borders. As he put it: “They are most effective, border controls, when you’ve got the rate of infection down in your country.”
Given that we’ve been hearing this one for almost a year, we have to ask: if not now, then when is the right time? Other than “later – much later”. It was never the right time. Last summer, Johnson spent the bit where we’d got the infection rate down suggesting there wasn’t going to be a second wave and that everything would be back to normal by Christmas.
Time and again the government has shown a desperate unwillingness to take swift decisions upfront, evidently preferring to pay in lost freedoms and much longer economic damage at the other end. Closing borders for a period buys time. But with new and potentially vaccine-resistant variants the big unknown quantity, what a bizarre series of conditions needs to be in complex alignment for us to consider not giving any number of them a deadly head start. Infections must be down, testing must be up, Mercury must be in retrograde, and the beam of sunlight must hit the ancient crystal at precisely the right angle at precisely the right hour.
Only then can the influencers and the luxury holidaymakers and the business travellers be informed that, actually, this probs doesn’t count as an essential trip. Otherwise, apparently, you might as well shut Shergar’s stable door as this one.