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It’s raining again. Streaming down the windows, sluicing through the streets, turning pub gardens into a soggy mockery of those still too nervous to come inside.
The idea of hot sand between the toes has never felt so achingly appealing, so it isn’t hard, on one level, to understand the planeload of hopeful Brits who took off for Mallorca from Manchester last week even though the island isn’t yet on the official “green list” approved for holidays.
Gambling on amber, however, didn’t get them far. Spanish officials reportedly stopped the easyJet flight at the airport, letting in passengers claiming to be travelling for work but escorting the rest on to a return flight. Some of those turned back apparently had small children; kids presumably excited about spending half-term on the beach, who by now will be back home facing a spell in self-isolation and a barrage of Covid tests, despite having barely made it as far as the baggage carousel.
Doggedly trying to press ahead with a beach holiday in a global pandemic is perhaps a particular kind of madness. But airlines laying on extra flights to countries such as Spain, whose amber rating under the government’s new traffic light system means that only essential travel should be considered, are not blameless and neither is a government tacitly allowing them to do so. Flogging tickets for what might turn out to be a flight to nowhere seems at the very least irresponsible, yet the travel industry’s argument is that it isn’t illegal. If ministers genuinely don’t want them to do it, then they can always lay down the law, rather than passing the buck to a sector desperate to get some paying bums on seats that have been empty for so long.
Unlocking was meant to be the easy bit, the moment we emerged from the Covid nightmare into the reassuring arms of a vaccine programme still capable of breaking the link between rising infections and rising deaths or hospital admissions. But leaving behind the painful certainties of legally enforceable stay-at-home orders for this murky grey area of everyone being told to use their common sense turns out to have its own pitfalls. A poll conducted by YouGov for ITV’s Peston show last week, exploring what people think the government wants them to do, showed how hopelessly mixed the messages have become. Almost one in five thought they were now meant to behave “like before the pandemic”. While 41% thought ministers were in favour of hugging, 30% thought the opposite. Most did realise they weren’t supposed to travel to amber-list countries, but more than a third either didn’t know or thought it was being actively encouraged. People hear what they want to hear, perhaps. But what this experiment in common sense reveals is that in a wholly novel situation we don’t actually have much of it, if common sense is defined as a shared understanding of what is and isn’t now socially acceptable.
Conservatives love the idea of good, old-fashioned common sense because it puts individuals rather than governments back in the driving seat of decision-making, suggesting that deep down we know better than the hated nanny state what’s good for us. But no one is born with an innate knowledge of how to behave in a pandemic and, even a year on, most of us still haven’t amassed enough empirical experience to be wholly confident of the decisions we are expected – or liberated, depending on your point of view – to make. And after so long locked up, we have become faintly institutionalised.
Hard as it was to take initially, Britons had grown used to being told when it was safe to get a haircut, sit on a park bench or bring a date home, and the unthinking obedience of lockdown is proving surprisingly hard to unlearn. Like ex-prisoners dumped blinking on the pavement after a long stretch inside, we can’t quite remember how to function in a world of increasingly free will.
‘Going anywhere nice this summer?” has morphed from mindless small talk at the hairdresser’s to a question asked out of genuine curiosity as we all surreptitiously check what other people are doing, trying to establish where the new social consensus lies.
Just because you can now go to green-rated Portugal this summer, does that mean you necessarily should? Is it sensible to carry on avoiding cinemas and restaurants, even now they’re open and positively begging for custom, or is it downright mean, given how tough a year it’s been for industries clinging on by their fingernails? If you invite people to a party in July, after the last of the lockdown restrictions are, in theory, due to have been lifted, will they think you’re a reckless superspreader or by then will everyone be desperate for an excuse to dance?
The roadmap unveiled in February was designed to provide some certainty about the path to freedom, unfurling as smoothly as a red carpet. But it has turned out to be more of a twisting yellow brick road, with a new threat potentially lurking round every corner, leading inexorably towards the revelation that there isn’t much wizardry going on behind the Downing Street curtain.
The prospect of a vengeful Dominic Cummings ripping back that curtain with gusto this week when he testifies to MPs about his former boss Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic seems unlikely to inspire much confidence in this delicate next stage of decision-making. But then again, it might just put steel into the backbones of those still anxiously doubting their own judgment. Knowing what we now know about the wizard, can we really do so much worse?
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Should we stay or should we go? The return of free will has left us dithering | Gaby Hinsliff