Misrule Britannia

I’d already been planning to write about the state of things in the United Kingdom yesterday and then I woke up to the news that the UK government had closed the air bridge with Spain after Spanish COVID cases started to increase. This means that anyone who travels to Spain, including the Balearic and Canary Islands, faces a 2-week quarantine upon their return. The announcement and the new rules came at the same time, which would seem to be a step forward for the UK government, which has been incredibly slow to act about measures that would not seem to warrant the delay, like the original lockdown and, more recently, the requirement to wear masks in shops. The mask requirement, which went into effect on July 24, for instance, was announced 2 weeks before it was implemented, to “give people time to prepare,” even though the advice to wear masks had been around for months by that point and you wouldn’t think 2 weeks of preparation would be necessary. But it appears that even with the appearance of haste, the UK government had dropped the ball.

First, the timing: Schools closed on Friday and people who were going on their holidays (who’d been encouraged to go on their holidays, in fact, to start the economy back up) had left for Spain on Friday only to find out that if they didn’t return by midnight on Saturday they would be subjected to the quarantine on their return. In fact, one of the three decision-makers, Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps, called in to the quarantine meeting from Spain, where he had just arrived on holiday. You could say, “Well, those are the breaks. The numbers rose and the ministers acted decisively,” but that’s not quite the case. If we look at the numbers, we’ll see that Spain’s new-case rate surpassed the UK’s on July 10. And it’s not a case of there being a lag in the availability of the data. As you can see in this graph from July 26, we already had data for both the UK and Spain for July 25. At most, there was a one-day lag:

The government knows when schools let out. They knew that Friday and Saturday would be peak travel days for people. And they certainly knew by, say, Monday, July 20 that the total new case numbers in Spain had climbed significantly over the UK’s. Yet they allowed 600,000 holidaymakers to board planes and fly to Spain before they changed the rules. I’m not saying that the inconvenience of British tourists should be the government’s primary consideration when it has to implement a change in policy. Of course, right now, the world is uncertain, and holiday plans are uncertain. I would not be flying for a holiday right now, mostly because I don’t think the rules in planes are consistent or safe enough. What I am saying is that this was a completely avoidable situation if anyone had just thought a bit. The British government wants people to get back to work, yet they’ve now put many people, who can’t work from home, in the position of having to stay home for 2 more weeks upon their return without any compensation, since the British furlough schemes don’t apply for people who have to quarantine after a flight. And they’ve made people more wary of making future plans.

Moreover, the government, which is promoting “targeted lockdowns” based on regional statistics in this country, decided that a very broad brush was appropriate to the situation in Spain. As it turns out, most of the hot spots favored by British tourists still have new case rates below that in the UK. According to the New York Times, the Balearics, which include Majorca, Minorca, and Ibiza, have a new-case rate of 4 per 100,000, as do the Canary Islands. This is less than half that of the UK. And the closest of the Balearic Islands, Ibiza, is almost 100 miles from the coast of Spain, while the Canary Islands are off the coast of Morocco and over 1000 miles from Spain. In other words, the whole of mainland Spain is closer to the United Kingdom than it is to the Canary Islands. The outbreak in Spain is particularly bad in four contiguous regions in the northeast — Aragón, Navarra, Catalonia, and Basque Country:

Catalonia, which includes Barcelona, is the only one of these regions particularly favored by British tourists. It still makes some sense to close the air bridge to the entirety of mainland Spain, given the way people may travel from one region to another. But including, particularly, the Canary Islands in this ban makes as much sense as including Italy. So once again, we have a government seeming simultaneously too slow to act and too hasty.

Which brings me back to my original post about the state of things in the United Kingdom. My husband and I ventured out for the first time since the lockdown started, taking a 4-day break in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. The day we came back was the day the mask rules for shops were finally going to take effect. The good news: Shops and restaurants were doing everything you would want. Both the restaurant and pub we went to had moved tables farther apart and provided hand sanitizer. Things like salt and pepper were provided in individual packets upon request. And the staff members were all wearing masks. The apartment we’d rented had put special cleaning measures in effect and left rules for us to follow, including removing the linens and all trash upon leaving. Tourist attractions had closed some parts to visitors because they were not able to ensure social distancing and had put the proper signs and one-way systems in effect. Everything seemed to work well.

Now for the not-so-good-news. It appears that a majority of the visitors had no idea that we were in the middle of a pandemic. They did not practice any form of social distancing, walking as many as six abreast in certain places, making my husband and me scramble onto the grass and up hills, etc., to avoid them. And they did not, by and large, wear masks in stores, presumably because it wasn’t required until Friday. They were generally good-natured about standing in a queue outside the store to wait their turn to go in, but they were quite a bit closer than one meter apart in that queue (and there were no signs telling them to maintain a safe distance). In one particular instance, we passed a couple walking on an over-two-meter wide part of the pavement. They walked down the center, with one meter in between them, so there was no way to avoid proximity. My husband, not known for his tact, said something like, “Move over!” as we passed. The woman didn’t hear and asked the man what he’d said, and the man replied, “He’s an a**h**.” Another time my husband said something, people started laughing at him. I did try to tell him that if he wanted to confront people, he might want to be a bit more informative, like saying, “You know, it’s difficult to practice social distancing if you take up the entire pavement,” because I don’t think the people he reprimanded had any idea that they were doing anything wrong. Which brings me back to the government. On Friday morning, a BBC reporter was out interviewing people about the new mask rules. They all were amenable to wearing masks, to “do their part.” But none of the people interviewed had been wearing the masks before that Friday. This tells me that a lot of people haven’t been paying attention, or have found the “guidance” too confusing, but were, if not happy, at least willing to do their part and follow the rules. If the government had not waited so long to put a rule in place, people would not have waited so long to follow that rule.

And even now, I am reminded of Dickens’s aptly named Circumlocution Office, whose sole mission it is to make everything as confusing as possible. Here is the guidance for mask wearing in takeaway restaurants: If you are going to order and buy your food to consume it elsewhere, the entire time you’re standing in the queue, ordering your food, and waiting for it to come out, you are required to wear a mask, because in that case, the restaurant is a shop. But—and here is where it gets absurd—if you are in the same queue, but planning to take your food to a table in the shop, the entire time you’re standing in the queue, ordering your food, and waiting for it to come out, you do not need to wear a mask, because it is considered a restaurant. You are in the same queue, with the same people around you, for the same amount of time, but now, according to the government, the risk you pose to others has magically disappeared. According to Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis, this should be self-evident. “Obviously,” he says, “if you’re in a food outlet it’s not practical to wear a face mask.” Well, Mr. Lewis, it’s not that obvious to me. When my husband and I went to the restaurant in Aldeburgh, we wore our masks until we got to the table, which was far enough from other tables that we could practice social distancing. And we were just walking through to get to our table. Being indoors in a queue with other people, where it’s not possible to maintain a reasonable distance, is exactly what you don’t want to be doing, wherever you’re planning to eat your sandwich. Is it any wonder people don’t believe that the government is serious when it makes rules that are this contradictory? The virus doesn’t know that you will be sitting down. If it’s a good idea to wear a mask in a queue, it’s a good idea to wear a mask in a queue.

This isn’t the only place the rules the government puts in place are rendered useless. Last week, Tesco, ASDA, and Sainsbury’s all announced that they would not ask customers to put masks on, because evidently, it’s beyond their ability to do so. Yet the Super Sainsbury’s near me has a full-time security guard stationed at the entrance/exit to the store, and I’ve seen him stop people and ask to see their receipts. Would it really be impossible for him to remind people that they are required to wear masks? There are certainly a number of rules stores enforce all the time. You must pay for your food, you can’t light a cigarette in the produce aisle, you can’t go in without a top or shoes. Of course, if a customer gets belligerent, you can’t expect a cashier to duke it out with him or her, but that would be true in all the instances I just cited as well. So we now have mask rules that include fines for non-compliance, but stores won’t refuse entrance or call the police for non-compliance, the police have said they won’t enforce the rules, and the government says, “Well, of course, we can’t force people…” Yes, you can. You force me to do plenty of things. And the government, I’m hoping, makes stores and restaurants comply with hygiene regulations or risk fines or shut-downs. How is this situation so different? By announcing that they won’t be requiring masks, the stores are undercutting the government and the government is throwing up its hands and saying, “Nothing we can do!” Is it any wonder that people on the pavement in Aldeburgh think the threat has disappeared? People keep saying Boris Johnson is like Donald Trump, but I think they are different. Until recently, Trump was actively encouraging non-compliance, acting like a spoiled child who thinks COVID has been created to thwart him. He didn’t think he should have to follow the rules, and he suggested that the virus itself was a hoax. (I say “until recently” because in his recent appearances, he’s appeared somewhat chastened by the continuing rise in cases and deaths.) Boris Johnson is the overly lenient parent who doesn’t want his spoiled child to dislike him, thereby creating confusion and unhappiness by refusing to set firm rules. Neither one of these approaches is likely to avert a second wave of infection in autumn. I guess we should just be happy that our scientists are as brilliant as our governments are inept.

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