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Covid experts warn against foreign holidays, so why is Boris Johnson so keen?

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Tom Pilgrim/PA</span>
Photograph: Tom Pilgrim/PA

“Fly now pay later”, offers one finance company, which gives loans for holidays, including those to Portugal and other green-listed countries. We may all end up paying later for those flying off to sun, sea and Covid. One travel company, Tui, alone has 19 flights to Portugal next week, eight of them now using Dreamliners, which have space for up to 345 people.

Prof Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says he finds the new travel rules bizarre. “Why Portugal? It might be OK if people only met Portuguese- and British-vaccinated people – but they’ll mix with others from France, Italy and Spain, mixing at airports, waiting in queues.” Oxford University professor John Bell, of the government’s vaccine task force, is optimistic that the vaccines will protect against the variant first detected in India, but still strongly warns against foreign holidays this summer, for fear of importing fresh mutant strains. With about half of the UK population unvaccinated, a wait of several weeks after getting jabbed before vaccines are as effective as possible, and with some still vulnerable after vaccination, risk abounds. In the past week, infections and deaths rose: watch ministers now blaming any resurgence on vaccine refusers, nudging blame on to poor people and ethnic minorities.

How much like deja vu this feels, how like last summer. The dash to places like Greece brought back more than half of imported Covid cases, according to a Public Health England paper; McKee also notes that it accelerated infections in Greece. This was when the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was subsidising the country to eat meals sitting indoors, breathing on each other, but not for a takeaway sandwich with a friend on a park bench. “Paying people to sit inside, studies show, did harm,” says Prof Susan Michie, a participant in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) through the behavioural science group. 

Here we go again, opening up foreign travel and pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues indoors, despite the health secretary, Matt Hancock, warning that this new variant transmits faster and could spread “like wildfire” among the unvaccinated. Ministers ignore their own preconditions for easing up, the fourth of which requires that our “assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern”. But that test has surely been failed, with the risk fundamentally changed as new variant hotspots multiply. University of Warwick models indicate that if it is 40% more transmissable, that would mean 6,000 hospitalisations a day – above the second wave’s peak.

Watch: Summer holidays are back, says TUI

The prime minister, an admirer of the mayor from Jaws, is a stranger to the precautionary principle. He now shifts responsibility from state to individual: “I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today.” But who can be responsible for other breathers in a restaurant or cinema?

Note the mood change in the air. Blame for his cavalier failure to shut borders as Covid rampaged through India is pouring out of his own Tory press, the Telegraph and Sunday Times hammering him for letting in 20,000 potentially infected travellers from India for three weeks after Pakistan and Bangladesh flights were stopped. From everywhere comes the damaging charge that Johnson delayed because he put (over-hyped) hopes of a trade deal with India ahead of life and death of his people, only cancelling his India trip a day before he was due to fly.

The India scandal flashes red political alarms, because Johnson owes his place in No 10 to that dog-whistle Brexit pledge to “take back control of our borders”. He slams the door to EU builders, carers and farm workers but leaves the border wide open to places running hot with Covid.

The mystery is why holidays abroad are given such priority. Though the risk is hard to quantify, leading experts warn against travel. Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, which first warned of border-closure failures, tells me: “No department is responsible for border decisions, with no transparency on how the Joint Biosecurity Centre decides where people can travel.” She urges rules to make hauliers take lateral flow tests on the ferry or Eurotunnel.

 Related: The UK needs a robust border policy, but right now we can’t see if it is working 

But here’s Cooper’s most telling question (after revelations in David Cameron’s “love DC” lobbying texts to chums): “Who exactly has Boris Johnson’s ear on this? Who’s texting him?” What commercial interests in reckless foreign travel hold sway? That’s the right question, after yet another contracts-for-chums revelation where Hancock helped a former minister secure a £180m PPE deal and Lord Udny-Lister sat on a board that granted a massive state loan to a company that he hadn’t fully disclosed his links to. Who knows what secret influencers stop Johnson putting life and death before commerce?

For a prime minister greedy for popularity, he oddly ignores public opinion on the borders: the public puts safety well above foreign holidays. Ipsos Mori finds 79% of Britons are alarmed at Covid-19 variants coming into the UK, with 67% wanting to stop variants spreading by barring arrivals to the UK from any foreign country. As many as 42% support introducing another national lockdown if needed. Johnson would pay a high political price for a third wave.

Most senior Covid experts are perplexed by the government encouraging foreign travel, beyond a few special family and work cases. The UK is beautiful – I went to Berwick-on-Tweed and Northern Ireland last summer – and I feel no need to fly away now. Labour should take the lead on this, urging citizens to holiday here. That’s a backing-Britain triple win, with less Covid risk, more help for struggling UK hospitality and fewer climate-killing flights.

  • Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

Watch: Should I book a holiday in 2021?

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