The best thing about lockdown is, as with banging your head against a brick wall, the relief when it stops.
It hasn’t stopped yet, por supuesto. But even the relatively minor tweaking of the rules in various parts of the UK this week – such as allowing outside gatherings of six – has unleashed a palpable national giddiness, a sign perhaps of how far our horizons have shrunk.
Anything and everything starts to look like an adventure when it’s been banned for long enough, to the point where a hairdresser’s appointment is now the stuff of intoxicating dreams, and leaving the house for anywhere that isn’t the supermarket feels like a holiday in itself.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that, according to YouGov, seven in 10 Britons would be willing to sacrifice foreign travel this year if it meant the country could still open up domestically as planned; o, en otras palabras, that most would rather not risk potentially bringing new variants back to the UK and jeopardising the precious everyday freedoms we’re only just getting back.
If it came to a choice between Australian-style closed borders but a relatively normal life within them, or the freedom to travel but at a potentially hefty domestic cost, most would evidently rather choose a whole joyous summer of barbecues and festivals and beer gardens, and the dizzying prospect of actually being allowed inside a friend’s house, over two weeks in the Med. (Which is perhaps just as well, given the third wave of Covid now rolling across Europe makes it unlikely the travel ban will be lifted any time before August.)
Someone in Whitehall is still valiantly briefing the newspapers about traffic-light systems and tiers and ways of making it all possible while limiting the need to quarantine afterwards. But a year into the pandemic, most of us have developed an innate sense of when something sounds too good to be true (remember “eat out to help out”?). So why not just be upfront about it now, admit that foreign holidays are unlikely this year, and pour the government’s energies into making (otro) summer of holidaying at home work?
Ministers could talk up the opportunity for us to pump some money back into the domestic economy, especially those lucky enough to have stored-up savings, while discovering the lovelier and less well-trodden bits of Britain: the spectacular North Yorkshire or Northumberland coasts instead of overcrowded Cornwall and Norfolk, quizás; or lush Carmarthenshire instead of Pembrokeshire; or rivers and lakes instead of coast.
The big tourist honeypots can start preparing now to cope with an unprecedented influx of holidaymakers, without making life too miserable for the locals. It took a year of passports gathering dust for me to realise how much of my own country I still didn’t know or appreciate enough, and by now even a wet weekend camping looks wildly exotic compared with the cramped life we’ve led for the last few months.
A travel and tourism industry that is already on its knees would, por supuesto, require generous bailouts. But it’s likely to need those anyway, since last summer’s 11th-hour cancellations and overnight changes of quarantine regulations had left many people wary of travelling this year even before Europe’s numbers started heading in the wrong direction. More than three-quarters of Britons hadn’t booked a holiday by the end of February, and of those who had, YouGov found almost twice as many were staying in Britain as going abroad.
Some people will, por supuesto, still need to travel for compassionate reasons, perhaps to see family overseas from whom they’ve long been separated. But the rest of us shouldn’t need too much persuading into a summer of wetsuits and windbreaks, cagoules and chips on the pier: the kind of summer that, to anyone who grew up before the 1980s, was generally the only kind on offer anyway.
Too defeatist? Quizás. But even as a lifelong travel junkie, I’d now do anything to avoid repeating last summer’s mistake of letting returning holidaymakers seed fresh infection just in time for the schools to come back, only this time with the added risk of bringing home new variants that are potentially vaccine-resistant. Anything rather than be dragged backwards, now we’re so tantalisingly close to being free.