If lockdown easing goes awry, it has nothing to do with Johnson’s Modi operandi, OK? | Marina Hyde

If lockdown easing goes awry, it has nothing to do with Johnson’s Modi operandi, OK? | Marina Hyde

When the prime minister stood up in February and unveiled his roadmap out of lockdown, he promised it would be “cautious but irreversible” – your clearest indication that it would at some point feature a signature lack of caution, which in turn could herald some truly incendiary reversals.

While we settle in for a couple of feverish weeks awaiting the data on the Indian variant, a recap. Yesterday, on the very day people were allowed back inside the pubs, they were already being told not to get drunk in them, and strongly encouraged to remain outside enjoying May’s seasonal charms. (I’ll have a pint of lager with a hailstone top, please.) Yesterday, on the very day people were permitted to travel again – with countries arranged into green, amber and red lists, as long advertised – Matt Hancock explained that people should definitely not travel to amber list countries. Then why are they permitted to? Is our travel policy some kind of dare?

It’s all about individuals using their common sense and taking responsibility, apparently. Which, I think you’ll agree, means so much more coming from a government that let at least 20,000 – TWENTY THOUSAND – people enter the UK from India just in the period Johnson was delaying imposing his travel ban. Was that not a moment for common sense, and indeed caution? It seems not. Instead it was a moment for bunching people up in six-hour queues in the fresh April air of the Heathrow arrivals hall.

Instinctively, the renewed ubiquity of Hancock feels ominous. No one has had to come out and take more body blows for the team during this pandemic than Hancock, and even seeing his face now produces the Pavlovian sense that some shit is heading inexorably towards a fan. Hopefully it will be Zeno’s shit – like the philosopher’s paradox, always halving its distance to the fan but never actually making contact with it. But to listen to the various government lines, it is almost as if the pre-blame game is already afoot. Yesterday, a minister briefed Politico’s Playbook : “The risk is that a small number of idiots ruin it for everyone else.” Well quite. It IS only a small number of idiots – but unfortunately, they all work in Downing Street.

This government is blessed with lower numbers of vaccine-hesitant citizens than almost anywhere else in the world that doesn’t enforce jabs at gunpoint if necessary; and however wrong/infuriating/selfish you think those refuseniks are – and I have a lot of sympathy with people’s frustration – factoring them in is part of the equation. Plus, it is potentially a profoundly smaller part of the equation than what happens at the border.

When the vast majority of the country is observing a lockdown, the big remaining levers to pull belong to the government. Among those who dutifully abided by every edict there will be utter fury if it turns out that all their sacrifice was undone at the border, which – spoiler alert – is not actually controlled by “a few idiots” in Bolton.

Thousands and thousands of people have entered the UK every single day of the pandemic, and the wisdom of that has veered between “an acceptable risk” and “the number one mistake” at various different stages. But once the vaccine rollout roared into gear, it was clear that giving ourselves the longest headstart against outside variants was the best course of action. A temporary closing of borders to gain a bigger cushion wouldn’t exactly have been an unpopular policy. People spent much of this latest lockdown absolutely fuming at pictures of influencers, the Beckhams, and various other super-rich types going about their holidays while everyone else wondered how it was “essential travel”.

That more than 20,000 passengers were allowed to enter from India when Johnson was dithering/angling for a photo op with Narendra Modi was the farthest possible point from common sense – and countless people said it at the time. The absurdity yesterday even drew an interjection from Dominic Cummings – the only person to break his silence more frequently than Prince Harry – who judges our border policy to be a “joke”. High praise indeed.

You’ll note we have spent rather a lot of the past 14 months being told to “take responsibility” and “use common sense” by a government serially incapable of either. If it does all go tits up, they’d better hope the terrible weather continues well past “freedom day” on June 21. At least hailstorms aren’t rioting weather.

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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