The Sunday Telegraph
Igot back from amber-list Europe last weekend. It was lovely to have made it to a beautiful foreign landscape, but the obstacle course of stressful, expensive admin required for the return stuck a dour tail on the trip. With its rictus of illogical hurdles keeping vaccinated and properly tested people from travelling with relative ease, Britain seems to want to trumpet from every rooftop that it is closed for business, closed for fun and closed for any kind of rational enjoyment after what has been an astonishing vaccine drive.
There is something so deeply British about what we’re doing to ourselves: snatching an endless purgatory of anxiety, fear and lives weighed down by the bureaucracy of hygiene theatre from the jaws of what could have been victory. We had an advantage, a huge one, and instead of running with it gleefully, we’ve driven ourselves – or been driven – into the mud. We’ve partially vaccinated 42million adults, or a globebeating 80 per cent of the adult population, and 30million have been fully vaccinated. The Indian variant is cause for concern, of course, and a single jab is much less effective against it than two jabs. But Britain has an over-abundance of our very own AstraZeneca vaccine, and so – if we really wanted to embrace our vaccine ingenuity – we could be shortening the gap between jabs not by a month, as we are now, but by two months. We could even let people pay to have their second jab sooner. Sacrilege, but it shouldn’t be.
However, we prefer the unpleasant route. And so while America romps on with normal life, having unleashed hundreds of millions of vaccines in its own impressive effort, back in Blighty just going to the pub is a slalom of pointless admin, and the arbitrary rules only seem to be multiplying. To view a book in the British Library, you have to wait three days because the material must “quarantine for 72 hours” – this despite the fact that as far back as the summer numerous, reliable studies have shown that the risk of transmission through surfaces is almost nil.
No, you’re not going to catch Covid from a manuscript that’s been in an archive for years, but you might on a packed Tube where most people are no longer bothering with masks – that being a simple area in which the British have been rubbish compared with Europe and much of the US. This is something the Government might usefully focus on, but I suspect the PM and Matty H don’t tend to take public transport, apparently preferring to force theatres, pubs, libraries and museums to tinker with pointless measures.
Meanwhile, Europe has had an abomination of a jab programme that is only now picking up. It has a much bigger problem with anti-vaxxers than we do, and has vaccinated far fewer people. The Indian variant is on the march there too. And yet even they have realised: as vaccinations pick up, it’s time to let people live again. Variants are here to stay, and as the UK has shown, can erupt anywhere, even in Kent. Red list or no, they’ll get in anyway, as the Indian variant has made all too clear.
So while Britons are stuck at home, paralysed by the barrage of medical bureaucracy required to re-enter the country, and then ten days of quarantine, across Europe borders are reopening, beaches and bars are open for business, Germans are sipping sangria in Mallorca and people who have had both doses aren’t forced to undergo endless rigmarole by the authorities.
In Italy last week, it was such a pleasure to sit wherever I wanted for coffee, for beer, for spritz. I went for ice cream, I went for dinner, I went to museums and churches without booking in advance. People are respectful with masks, zealous with hand sanitiser, but they were enjoying themselves. Pointless one-way systems have been ditched, and the Italians realise that making people register for a faulty contact tracing programme with their phones before they can enter a venue is pointless. There’s a sense that when Europe opens up, it really opens up. The same goes for America. We’re the only ones being kept back in the twilight life of hygiene bureaucracy and restrictions.
Britain’s love affair with self-excoriation is part of what makes it great: it makes us one of the least corrupt countries in the world. It yields great comedy. It breeds a political culture of robust, bracing critique. But when you get even the likes of Theresa May and Tony Blair calling our jamboree of lifesapping rules bizarre and illogical, surely it’s gone too far.
We began Covid with defeat, and now we have the chance to enjoy the fruits of a win. It’s just a shame that our Government, still stuck in the mindset of the first phase of the the pandemic, is set on squandering it.
‘While Britons are stuck at home, Germans are sipping sangria in Mallorca’