Contradictory messaging is most damaging to the least powerful
The fiasco over the Government’s contradictory pronouncements on international travel has unfolded in a now-familiar atmosphere of uncertainty and mean-spiritedness. Each new “clarification” of the travel advice is drenched in class anxiety: travel is a luxury and virtue consists of denying such luxuries.
The politicians, as usual, are eager to get ahead of the latest moral bandwagon and are cheerfully causing chaos in the process. Notice how the most privileged are also the most ostentatiously severe. The latest was James Bethell, the fifth Baron Bethell to be precise, who is now a Health minister. “Travelling is dangerous,” he announced on Times Radio yesterday — “travelling is not for this year, please stay in the country.”
Within the last hour, the Prime Minister himself has said that, despite there being no legal injunction, “you should not be going to amber countries on holiday.”
Let’s just remind ourselves how we got here.
The UK Government’s traffic light system for international travel was briefed for weeks in advance and, when finally confirmed, was maximally restrictive, with destinations like St Helena and the Falkland Islands making up the very short list of “green” countries. But the rules were at least clear: you could travel without quarantine to those few countries; travel to the ‘red’ countries was subject to mandatory hotel quarantine and strongly advised against; and travel to amber countries was subject to quarantine and a high degree of testing.
The regime for amber countries is not exactly slack or permissive. If you want to go to Italy for a week you have to take no fewer than five Covid-19 tests — negative test before departure, negative test on arrival, negative test before departure back to the UK and two negative tests on day two and eight once you have returned home and are in quarantine, which is policed carefully with calls every day and home visits. Families that have followed government advice and made plans on this basis, at the additional cost of at least £310 per person, in order to see relatives or go on holiday after a horrific past year must really feel it is necessary.
And now, from the despatch box of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister tells them they shouldn’t go after all. Perhaps he thinks this technique of declaring things legal and then saying people should not do them is clever —“nudging” the population while stopping short of an outright ban. Perhaps it is choreographed negative mood music in advance of a good news moment for which he can claim credit; or perhaps, after the disastrous past year, he simply now thinks it is safest to be seen to be on the restrictive side of whatever the latest Covid controversy is.
But what are these families supposed to do now? How is business supposed to behave? The principle of freedom under the law is that governments tell you what is legal and what isn’t and the rest is up to the people. This sort of confusion is more common in chaotically run non-democracies, where uncertainty and taboo around what is allowed is part of the mechanism of control. It’s not just incompetent, it’s reckless.
Meanwhile the rich and privileged, confident of their rights and scornful of dithering politicians, will go ahead and travel to amber countries anyway. As always, it is the less privileged who will feel the fearful effects of this ambiguity and have their lives further curtailed.