Ministers are reacting to events in the Covid-19 crisis rather than shaping them

“The persistence of the coronavirus can take advantage of human instinct. It lingers such that the public believes that things are getting better, long after they are going wrong.”

Guardian editorial

Another day, another sadly predictable U-turn from the government of Boris Johnson. A few weeks ago ministers were encouraging the public to go abroad for their holidays. They did so without a comprehensive airport testing regime for passengers, unlike in many parts of the world. As restrictions have been lifted across Europe, countries have reported rises in Covid-19 cases. People returning from Spain, which has seen a spike in infections, now face mandatory quarantine. The farce means that the transport secretary will be one of those self-isolating.

Britain continues to record a higher number of coronavirus cases and deaths than Spain, which had one of the most stringent lockdowns in Europe. Madrid has every right to be frustrated. It is unclear why passengers from the relatively unaffected Canaries and Balearics are treated the same as those returning from Covid-19 hotspots in Catalonia.

This raises serious questions about what advice – and information – people ought to be given so that they can make informed judgments about travelling abroad. Spain was on the safe list last Friday, only to be taken off it on Saturday. Changes to quarantine rules need clear messaging, with as much notice as possible. Passengers returning from holiday who find themselves put into quarantine have every right to be angry, because they had little warning.

Individuals will find it hard to insure themselves in such circumstances. There is a compelling case for help from the state to cover for loss of work, as well as increased employment protections. Statutory sick pay is set at too low a level. There must be a better response than telling people to go on to universal credit if their employer refuses to pay them while they self-isolate.

The new normal needs a new politics. Mr Johnson ought to be lowering the level of uncertainty for the public, not raising it. Rather than governing by U-turn, ministers must prepare better for possible developments. The persistence of the coronavirus can take advantage of human instinct. It lingers such that the public believes that things are getting better, long after they are going wrong.

Mr Johnson’s error has been to follow public opinion in a pandemic rather than lead it. He had to be dragged to make face masks mandatory, and to implement passenger quarantine. Ministers shut down the community test-and-trace system at the start of the crisis and have created a new privatised one that is less effective than the NHS operation it replaced. Countries such as Israel and Japan, which had successfully controlled the spread of the virus, are now struggling to contain new outbreaks. These have been traced to super-spreader settings such as nightclubs as well as a lack of mask use and social distancing. England and Wales should look at the Independent Sage group’s “Zero Covid” approach [also reported by Owl] that Scotland and Northern Ireland have committed to. Otherwise the odds are increasing that renewed lockdowns, damaging to society and the economy, will be imposed.