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The Covid divide: there’s one rule for the elite, another for us

Ask yourself this. Do you really think Scomo would take his family to the other side of the world to a country in lockdown and socialise, 'doing the rounds' posing for photos, going on a pub tour - with no masks or social distancing - if there was a real and present threat of a 'killer pandemic'? All in the name of public duty eh?

Or would it be much more likely he and his family would be locked away - with security - to ensure their safety? "We're all in this together" ... so the saying goes.

It's blatantly obvious we're not.

UK article from The Spectator 26/06/2021 by Kate Andrews

This week was meant to be the moment when we could celebrate the return of freedom. Instead, we’re left still navigating a maze of rules. Couples are working out what a ‘Covid-secure wedding’ means (spoiler: no dancing or hugging). Family reunions — once planned for Christmas, then delayed to Easter — are being pushed back into the autumn. Birthday parties have been axed again. No one wants to break the law, or risk asking others to do so.

Ministers make a great show of obeying the rules. The weekend before Boris Johnson announced the delay to ‘freedom day’, he was bumping elbows with Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau at the G7 in Cornwall, posing for socially distanced photos. It was the picture of Covid security.

What the official photos didn’t show, however, was the behaviour behind the scenes. Long-lens cameras captured a far more relaxed affair, with no masks or social distancing in sight. ‘Was Cornwall exempt?’ jokes one government official who attended the summit. ‘There was no adherence to the rules.’ The event was a stark illustration of the new divide in Covid Britain between the restricted public and the party elite.

The third wave of Covid is currently spreading through the country, predominantly among the young. The Spectator’s data hub reveals this week that the ­median age for testing positive is now 26 — far below the dangerous age range for catching Covid-19. But normal life, we’re told, still can’t return. And if you’re pinged by Test and Trace, stay home, even if you’ve received both jabs. We all need to play our part to tackle the virus.

Unless you’re Michael Gove, that is. When he was pinged after returning from watching the Champions League final in Portugal, he found his way onto a pilot scheme which allowed him to test daily rather than self-isolate. Workers reliant on an hourly wage would surely like to take advantage of a scheme like this too, but such schemes aren’t well advertised to the general public. The first lockdown was riddled with political casualties. Professor Neil Ferguson and Scotland’s chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood resigned for breaching Covid laws. Dominic Cummings held a press conference in the Downing Street rose garden to defend his trip to Barnard Castle. Other ministers faced awkward questions about their own interpretation of the rules. This time round, there has been more leeway and fewer questions. Those familiar with the system — or indeed those who designed it — can normally find an exemption. ‘He’s willing to go the extra air mile.’For months this year it’s been illegal to leave the country. Families and loved ones have been separated by unforgiving border controls. Matt Hancock announced in February a new law threatening ten years in jail for those who lie to avoid quarantine. While the explicit ban on travel has now been lifted, the so-called ‘green list’ includes only 11 countries, most of which won’t let us in. Several more countries will be added next week, but the traffic light system becomes more confusing too, with a 'green watchlist' implemented as well. Options remain limited, the rules complex. Travel has become not just a bureaucratic nightmare but also expensive, thanks to all the testing required.

Unless you are a minister. Officials travelling for work purposes are exempt from quarantine (as well as testing), and many have not been shy about exploiting this ticket to ride. In April, when travel was banned and non-essential shops and outdoor dining were still closed, Wendy Morton in the Foreign Office found herself in Greece to hear — in a way that Zoom was apparently unable to convey — about the country’s plans to combat climate change. She even found time to tour the ancient Agora of Athens. Later that month, her colleague James Duddridge went to Nigeria, where he congratulated an anti-poaching squad ‘in person’.

MPs can organise their own isolation rules, their own trips and even their own parties

Alok Sharma MP, meanwhile, made his way to Paris in March (and Kenya, and Costa Rica) to do some prep work for the government’s eco-jamboree COP26, of which he’s been appointed president. Never mind that the event is taking place in Glasgow. A lower-carbon video conference didn’t seem to appeal. The list goes on. Trade Minister Greg Hands’s passport is getting plenty of use. He travelled to France and Germany last month to discuss the future of tech and business relations with officials, and was in Slovenia in March to talk trade policy. A trip to Croatia to tour the Rimac Automobili in Zagreb followed, and Hands seemed pleased to be there, particularly because it allowed him to reminisce on Twitter about his honeymoon in Croatia. He would have flown back to an England where, at the time, two people were just about to be allowed to sit together on a park bench.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons why a government official might have to make a trip abroad, even during a pandemic. But how many trips to the UAE, for example, are ‘essential’? Liz Truss’s trip to Dubai in April seemed sensible as she tried to develop trade links following Britain’s departure from the European Union — but it came just over a month after her junior minister Graham Stuart also travelled to the red-­listed country to discuss ‘clean energy’. No doubt plenty of ministers quietly wish we’d stuck to the 21 June timeline. But we don’t hear their rallying calls for freedom in parliament. Instead we see foreign minister James Cleverly’s trip to Tunisia posted on Twitter. He was there two weeks ago sampling fancy olive oil in the name of securing a ‘new trade agreement’.

When a child tests positive for Covid, the whole class goes home; when a colleague does, the office shuts down. Those are the rules, and the public abide by them. But when the Scottish footballer Billy Gilmour tested positive, no other player in the squad had to isolate. We’re told he hasn’t been in ‘close contact’ with teammates. It was a tough sell given that millions of people had watched him hugging several of his team during last Friday’s match....


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