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Why can’t UK ministers be clear about foreign travel? Because they don’t agree

There are concerns among Conservatives that the government’s coronavirus objective has changed without parliamentary debate.

By Stephen Bush

Are foreign holidays dangerous and essentially forbidden, or all right in some circumstances? Is a foreign holiday even, perhaps, essential to some people? Those are the mixed messages coming from government ministers. 

Part of the reason for the confusion is the topic the government can’t discuss: the B1.617.2 variant and the failure to employ best practice on central quarantine, which means the new variant is now here in the United Kingdom. It’s easier for ministers to talk about whether people should go abroad than whether or not the government should have done things differently.

But the other reason is genuine division among ministers about what to do next. Don’t forget that we didn’t go into lockdown solely because of the consequences of Covid-19. We went into lockdown because of what an unchecked outbreak would have done to healthcare capacity in general: an uncontrolled outbreak at the start of the pandemic would have meant the effective end of modern medicine as hospitals would have been overwhelmed with coronavirus cases. That was the right policy – the problem was that we went into lockdown too late and then made the same mistake in the winter – but it was a policy with costs, particularly for children, university students and people at the start of their careers. 

Now some of the noises from Downing Street suggest that we might extend lockdown not to protect those of us yet to be offered a vaccine but those who refuse it (despite the UK being on course for the levels of vaccination necessary for herd immunity in the United Kingdom, as Anthony Costello writes), and that the purpose of the UK’s lockdown seems to be shifting.

This is one reason ministers aren’t toeing the line on foreign travel in public: they are increasingly concerned in private that the government’s coronavirus objective has changed, without a debate in parliament, or anywhere else, for that matter. 

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