Ministers in a summer holiday tangle

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

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image copyrightPA Media

In normal times, you probably wouldn't think it's any business of a politician's to tell you when, or when not, to book a summer holiday.

On a freezing February night, what better cheering activity is there than to hunt for bargains that promise sunnier climes months way?

The pandemic, of course, has changed all that - you can look still, but you may well not want to book.

International travel is very heavily restricted. Even leaving your own home is only allowed for limited and specific reasons.

So whether you'll be heading for a lounger in six months time is, like it or not, part of the government's responsibility.

And the chances of going away will depend, not just on how the disease has shifted at home, but also how other countries have handled it abroad.

Yet still, with progress being made, cases falling, and the government pointing to the start of March as the hoped for beginning of the end of this lockdown, the transport secretary's remarks on Wednesday morning jumped out of the radio.

'Great British Summer'?

Grant Shapps warned that it was too early, not just to book a holiday abroad, but also a holiday at home.

Sources suggest that he was really just exercising natural caution at a very unpredictable time, but by doing so, we entered what has become a very familiar classic Covid situation.

Mr Shapps said don't book anything. But his colleague, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, had previously told the world that he was looking forward to a happy "Great British Summer", and had booked his holiday to Cornwall.

In turn, the prime minister had earlier said that he was "optimistic" about the prospects for summer breaks, even though he added plenty of caveats.

At Wednesday's Downing Street press conference, when asked for a second time, Boris Johnson said that it was too early to be sure.

But at the same time, Mr Hancock was talking to a group of MPs on a video call. Responding to questions, he repeated his own plans to head to the South West.

You would be forgiven for wondering then, as a would be holidaymaker, what you are meant to do?

One former minister tried to translate what they meant, suggesting: "Bottom line on holiday gate: travel abroad this year is unlikely. Holidays within the UK *are* likely by the summer, but the government can't make a hard and fast statement to this effect at this stage.

"If you book (as I have), you do so at your own risk."

Having talked to sources in government about what is likely, that is not a bad guess. But it is, very much, a guess.

image copyrightReuters
image captionGrant Shapps won't be going anywhere soon...

Which brings us to the second classic Covid situation.

Ministers' remarks clash with each other - in emphasis or fact sometimes - because they just do not know exactly what the situation will be, so they have no solid decision to explain.

And if they don't know, well there's not much they can tell us.

There is a separate conversation about just how vital clarity in government communications is during a public health crisis, whether ministers stick to exactly the same script is a matter that can affect life and death.

There are also ways for experienced politicians to not answer questions, even if it makes some people shout at the telly or turn off the radio.

But when it comes to looking more than a few weeks into the future, in the way that we all want to, all too often, ministers have ended up in a tangle.

It all depends...

That is one of the reasons why the PM, during this lockdown, has been noticeably more cautious about what might come next.

It's one of the reasons too why a couple of weeks ago he announced his intention to publish a plan on 22 February.

It gives the government a bit of breathing space to work out exactly what it wants to do, rather than ending up in some of the situations they have faced previously that have caused huge frustration - like some boroughs finding out about entering new tiers of regulations with only a few hours to go.

In this instance, that plan may not even give detail about holidays, still many months away.

On current expectations, schools in England are likely to open their gates to all pupils again on 8 March.

If the disease is being squeezed in the way ministers hope by then, it's likely some outdoor sports and some more socialising outside could return too.

But it doesn't seem that the next level of reopening, whether getting clients back in the hairdressers' chair, fitness enthusiasts back in the gym or punters back sharing a few drinks in a beer garden, is likely until April onwards.

And underline all of that with heavy black ink - it is dependent on what happens with the disease.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA pint at a pub... remember that?

I've written before that there is a reluctance in government to have to close the doors again. And that conviction seems to be getting stronger, not weaker, with one insider telling me: "Literally the worst thing we can do is lockdown four."

Caution in No 10 seems to be very firmly bedded in, and with the very real possibility of booster vaccinations being required later in the year, the practical effects of the disease aren't going to disappear fast.

There are massive concerns in the travel industry about losing another summer. Frustration perhaps too among many families eager for a spot of sun, or to know they can go and visit family abroad.

But as in many areas of life right now, the government isn't willing, and maybe not really able, to give a guarantee.