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It was the moment when the cabinet hawks hungry to open up the economy finally overcame the more cautious doves. In allowing fully vaccinated people to enter the UK from the EU and United States without quarantine from next Monday, Boris Johnson and his ministers overrode warnings by scientific advisers that the move involved a “clear public health risk”.
Significantly, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, focused on the “boost to the economy” rather than the possible downside on health from the potential to let in a new variant of Covid-19 capable of evading vaccine protection. His predecessor Matt Hancock might well have been more wary. He often formed an axis with Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and the scientists to rein in Johnson’s natural instinct to sweep away restrictions.
Johnson also likes to keep Conservative MPs happy and there has been intense lobbying from them on behalf of the understandably desperate tourism and travel sectors to salvage something from their miserable summer. The prime minister is keen to show the UK’s vaccine success is delivering tangible results for the public, especially as his “vaccine bounce” in the opinion polls appears to have petered out (Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, revealingly described the change as “progress we can all enjoy”). Johnson also wanted to avoid being outflanked by EU countries opening up to American visitors and benefiting from an economic boost denied to the UK.
The move is another calculated gamble by the man described as The Gambler in the biography of that name by Tom Bower. Perhaps Johnson feels he is on a winning streak after defying public opinion and lifting England’s remaining restrictions last week. The average daily number of new cases has fallen since, and there are welcome signs hospital admissions may be following suit. Ministers are using the same argument to justify easing travel and social distancing curbs: “If not now, when?”
Johnson will hope that all the arrows point in a direction that vindicates his cautious optimism, even though he is now wise enough not to repeat last year’s foolish predictions of imminent victory over the virus. A further opening up is likely next week when the traffic light system for international travel is reviewed. The panicky decision to put France into a new “amber plus” list will likely be reversed, so people returning from holiday there will not have to quarantine.
But the picture is not as rosy as Johnson and his ministers would like it to be. They had hoped making it easier for people to travel from America to the UK would persuade the US to reciprocate, but the signs are that will not happen any time soon, and if it does it might be too late for the summer holiday season. While the UK can now point to falling Covid case numbers, they are rising in America, making the Biden administration nervous about lifting incoming travel restrictions.
Despite that, Johnson’s move won him some positive headlines, with the Daily Mail proclaiming: “Britain’s back in business.” But he shouldn’t get carried away. Labour, now taking a noticeably more robust line on the government’s handling of the pandemic, attacked the decision as “reckless”. It is worried that some arrivals from EU countries such as Hungary (which has used China’s Sinopharm vaccine) might be allowed in without quarantine if airlines fail to check which jab they had. Labour also points out that some US states use paper vaccine certificates which could be easier to forge.
Johnson’s latest gamble might pay off. But a government that came to power pledging to “protect our borders” has been decidedly weak when it comes to international travel. Diplomatic convenience has sometimes trumped public health, notably when Johnson delayed adding India to the government’s red list for two weeks when he was due to make a trade visit to the country, helping the Delta variant to spread in the UK. Diplomatic niceties should not come first in a pandemic.
“If not now, when?” is no guarantee of success. If the decision on travel backfires, and a fourth lockdown in England is blamed on it, the lengthening charge sheet of “incompetence” would become very dangerous for Johnson. The contrast with Keir Starmer’s cautious competence might finally work to Labour’s advantage.
Many voters like Johnson because, as some in the red wall put it, “he is not a typical Conservative”. But they don’t want their prime minister to gamble with people’s lives.