In a week where the temperature in the UK dropped to its lowest in 25 years, the main topic in Westminster was summer holidays.
The transport Secretary Grant Shapps warned Brits this week not to book a summer holiday abroad or within the UK. He said that regardless of the UK’s own Covid situation in the summer, other countries with different vaccination programs make the situation more complicated.
This has been met with much criticism from the business and travel sector, particularly due to discrepancies among UK ministers. Matt Hancock said that he had booked his holiday in Cornwall months ago and was planning for a ‘Great British Summer’. The PM didn’t want to engage in the issue at the daily briefing on Wednesday, following his recent approach of avoiding making big promises about easing restrictions.
Six months ago, it would have been hard to predict such a severe second wave, new strains or the progress made on vaccinations. In December, Christmas relaxations of rules were planned until the very last minute. The UK Government has been criticised throughout the pandemic for U-turns, but their refusal to comment further on summer holidays reflects the reality that this is a situation that is very difficult to predict.
That said, what the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssburg called a “tangle” as ministers struggle to adopt the same line, shows the issue of uncertainty with Government policy. The aviation industry has said it won’t survive another cancelled season, and businesses are looking for some stability regarding policy.
The prospect of limited movement around the UK in July or August seems hard to believe- but at this stage the UK Government seems unwilling to promise anything. With lockdown measures unlikely to be eased before Easter, the Government is desperately trying to avoid Lockdown 4 at any stage in the future, hence the pessimism regarding Summer.
If Summer holidays are cancelled, at least Matt Hancock has announced a ‘quarantine package’ available to book from 11 February. Costing £1,750 per person, it’s (relatively) all inclusive: hotel, transport and mandatory Covid testing included. It’s slightly more expensive than other countries, with Australia charging £1,692 and New Zealand £1,630.
The website for booking looks exactly like an average holiday website, except you only fill in a Check In date- it automatically gives you a Check Out date in two weeks.
In England, this applies to high-risk countries only, although this list is composed of where new variants have been discovered - the US, for example, isn’t on it despite high Covid rates. Scotland requires all international arrivals to quarantine upon arrival, but as mentioned last week, this has practical difficulties. There are very few international arrivals directly into Scotland right now, so it is entirely possible to fly to England and then travel north by car or train.
If caught however, the Government has warned fines of up to £10,000 could be issued and sentences of up to ten years in prison. This has sparked significant criticism, with Kier Starmer calling these ‘empty threats’. As a former lawyer himself, he joins former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumpton in suggesting that this may be a disproportionate response. For example, similar sentencing is given to sexual assault of minors and threats to kill.
Given the delay in implementing tougher border restrictions, the jump to long jail sentences - which are unlikely to actually be implemented - doesn’t necessarily strengthen the government’s position on Covid.
Whilst summer holidays are at the top of many peoples’ minds, this also presents a major challenge for those with family abroad, who may now have to go much longer without being able to see them. This will also impact international students returning to Edinburgh at any point prior to the next academic year.
Cladding – Again
Finally, cladding was a major topic for the UK Government again this week as they announced further steps to address unsafe cladding.
The Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced an extra £3.5 billion to remove dangerous cladding on high rise buildings. However, for buildings any lower, low-interest loans will be offered as the Government has claimed there is significantly less risk with smaller buildings.
Campaigners have said these measures are not nearly enough, as loans still place the burden on homeowners. Similarly, the package only addresses cladding and doesn’t help with additional costs associated with living in these buildings.
There’s also a difference of data between the Government and campaigners as to how many people are at risk; the Government estimate is that 321,000 people live in unsafe buildings over 18 metres tall, whereas the Association of Residential Managing Agents cites 650,000 people in 274,000 flats.
Ultimately, whilst this package will help those living in high rise buildings like Grenfell Tower, it won’t help resolve the broader housing crisis of unsafe cladding.
Going into next week, we will finally see the hotel quarantine policy come into force, where there will no doubt be some early teething issues. Also, Scotland has warned they may need to lower the pace of its vaccination program due to supply issues, which will no doubt cause political problems for Nicola Sturgeon.