STEPHEN GLOVER: This flights shambles has left the liberal Boris Johnson I once knew in a tailspin
What has happened to the liberal-minded Boris Johnson I used to know, the free- spirited enemy of overbearing government?
Where exactly has the brilliant, clear-thinking journalist gone to, the man who used effortlessly to skewer bossy or fuzzy-minded politicians, and put them firmly in their place?
He wasn’t to be found yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Boris Johnson at the despatch box sounded peevish and threatening — quite unlike his true self.
This is what he said: ‘You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday. If you travel to an amber list country for any emergency, any extreme reason that you have to, when you come back, you not only have to pay for all the tests but you have to self-isolate for 10 days — we will invigilate, we are invigilating it, and people who fail to obey the quarantine can face fines of up to £10,000.’
Stern stuff. The amber countries are those — most of Europe, as it happens — to which travel is legally permitted but discouraged. Is that correct, though? On Tuesday, one Cabinet minister, George Eustice, said that people could travel to amber countries to visit friends. That’s a pretty broad invitation.
Yet a few hours later, a misery guts junior health minister by the name of Lord Bethell said that people ‘should stay in this country’ and that all travel abroad this year would be ‘dangerous’.
What has happened to the liberal-minded Boris Johnson I used to know, the free- spirited enemy of overbearing government? writes STEPHEN GLOVER
Boris seems to be in the Bethell camp. I don’t want to sound petty or pedantic, but wouldn’t it be helpful if Her Majesty’s Government could come up with a consistent, coherent and reasonable policy?
It would be helpful to the five million Britons who have booked holidays in Europe this summer. It would be helpful to the travel industry and airlines losing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds.
What would I say if I had Boris to myself for half an hour? I’d say I know he has had a hard ride — berated by the Opposition, much of the media and his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings for locking down too late both last March and last autumn.
I’d say I realise he has had his fingers burned. I understand why he has become ultra- cautious. I can imagine what it must be like to be fenced in by all-knowing scientists who will blab to the media if you don’t do what they tell you to do.
But I’d also say that, while I appreciate all his setbacks and difficulties, it can hardly be denied that he is presiding over a shambles created by excessive timidity on the part of a government with more than its fair share of control freaks.
Here is a question for Boris. Why is it necessary, indeed how can it possibly be deemed just, to prevent adults who have been twice vaccinated from travelling to countries where Covid infection rates have been falling fast?
Lots of research suggests that someone who has had two jabs is very unlikely indeed to catch a serious bout of Covid, and according to one study has zero chance of ending up in hospital in the event of contracting the disease.
Why can’t such a person be allowed to travel to a country where the prevalence of Covid is similar to our own? The latest daily figure for infection rates in amber Germany is 2,418 cases (slightly lower than the UK) while for deaths it is 56 (somewhat higher, but hardly stratospheric).
He wasn’t to be found yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions (pictured). The Boris Johnson at the despatch box sounded peevish and threatening — quite unlike his true self, writes STEPHEN GLOVER
In my book, there has to be a very serious reason for prohibiting someone from travelling abroad for work or pleasure. There is absolutely no justification if that person has been fully vaccinated (and so has a very low chance of passing on the virus) and the country in question is barely more hazardous than our own.
That’s what I mean by ‘control freakery’. The Government has taken extraordinary powers over our lives, some of which it is reluctant to give up even when the reason for claiming those powers has subsided.
The European Union, it pains me to say, is showing more flexibility. Yesterday, EU ambassadors recommended that non-essential travel should be allowed from outside the bloc for fully vaccinated people, though they have understandable qualms about the ‘Indian variant’.
‘Understandable’ because the Government and some of the media are obsessing hysterically about this new ‘variant’, though there’s no hard evidence it is more lethal or significantly more transmissible. A recent BBC news bulletin referred excitedly to a ‘sharp rise in infections’.
Nationally, there has so far been no increase in infections. If the Indian variant does lead to one, this won’t be cause for panic since most of the victims will very likely be younger, unvaccinated people at relatively little risk of serious illness.
At the height of the pandemic last March and April, plane-loads of people were landing at Heathrow every hour. Not until early June was quarantining made compulsory, writes STEPHEN GLOVER. Pictured: Heathrow Airport on Wednesday
Why can’t Boris see this? The answer is the same as to the question why the Government won’t let fully vaccinated people travel to countries where Covid is roughly as prevalent as in the UK. It has become coercive, as well as excessively negative.
Thus it clings on to powers after they have ceased to have any justification (if they ever did). It had to be browbeaten, not least by this newspaper, before allowing more than 30 people to attend a funeral, even though many more worshippers had long been permitted to go to a service in a church, synagogue or mosque.
There’s a weird combination of coercion and incompetence, as in the chaos over travel. The same Government that doesn’t want vaccinated people to fly to Germany (or lots of other safe countries) allows possibly infected people just off the plane from India to stand for hours in the same queue as healthy travellers returning from places where infections are low.
And this same Government has for more than a year shown extraordinary ineptitude in policing — or, more precisely, failing to police — our borders. At the height of the pandemic last March and April, plane-loads of people were landing at Heathrow every hour. Not until early June was quarantining made compulsory.
Even now, between four and five planes from India are allowed to land every day, though flights from most other ‘red’ countries with high infection rates such as Brazil have been stopped. It is bewildering.
That’s why we need the old clear-thinking Boris who could spot woolly thinking and apply common sense.
Wouldn’t it have been sensible to ban all flights from India at the same time as those from Pakistan, rather than wait three weeks and let the Indian variant, however manageable it may turn out to be, gain a hold?
Boris was once, I imagine, a very carefree — possibly even careless — parent towards his own numerous children. He would have been indulgent to a fault.
But now, as parent to the nation, he has become strict and unbending, as well as sometimes inconsistent, while presiding over a fair amount of chaos. A good parent doesn’t prevent prudent, mature children from going out into a world that inevitably harbours dangers.
We don’t want to be mollycoddled by an over-anxious father. Let us out again. Think less of fining us, or demanding endless tests for no good reason, and bring back the old, liberal, balanced Boris.
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