When coronavirus first arrived in Britain, ministers initially placed their hopes on the summer months offering relief from the pandemic. The idea was that if they could suppress infections until the late spring, the change in temperature might help to stop the virus in its tracks.
That wasn’t to be. Scientific advice now suggests that temperature in and of itself has limited effect on Covid-19’s spread. Yet as the death toll continues to rise, prayers for sunny weather from government are louder than ever. Why? To help keep people onside over what has the potential to be a long, dull, stay-at-home British summer.
With the prime minister, Boris Johnson, pitting himself against the bulk of his party over a gradual rather than a rapid easing of lockdown, the UK is now on course to move at a more stately pace than its European counterparts when it comes to socialising, the reopening of bars – and holidays. While the EU has a three-stage plan to restart tourism, and Italy and Spain aim to reopen for visitors as early as June, the UK is taking a rather different approach.
However, with Johnson determined to press on with what one No 10 adviser describes as the “slow and steady” path out of lockdown, the focus in government is not on appeasing airline companies but working out how to keep a potentially restless British public onside while its neighbours holiday.
Even if talks of “air bridges” – allowing quarantine-free travel to and from low-infection countries such as Greece – come to fruition, the general sense in government is that the bulk of Britons will not be jetting abroad this summer.
As well as quarantine and safety concerns, the economic reality means extravagant holidays just won’t be an option for many. With unemployment set to increase even further and many on reduced household incomes, holidays are likely to be a luxury that people cannot afford. Social distancing practices mean that budget flights, too, could soon become much harder to find.
As a result, ministers have begun to work out what they can do to keep morale up over the long summer months. While public support is now very much for lockdown continuing, the worry is what happens when other countries enjoy breaks with more ease. “If the R number rises in these countries as a result, we’ll be praised for our response – if it doesn’t, we might start to get some heat,” explains one government figure.
The great hope is that the weather gods will shine on the UK. The evidence suggests that activity outside carries a much lower risk of transmission than inside. Just look at how Northern Ireland is now allowing a half dozen people from different households to gather, if they are outside. All the plans to relax socialising coming down the tracks are based on being outside. “If it rains, we’re fucked,” says one rather blunt Tory MP.
Talks are under way across departments to see what can be done to help retail businesses move outside. There is a focus on encouraging local councils to make it easy to cut red tape for businesses so they can adapt to a new normal in which trading outside is the preferred option. Inside No 10, one good-case scenario for mid-summer is that people will be permitted to dine outside at a restaurant with someone they don’t live with.
While restaurants and cafes are viewed as potential beneficiaries of good weather, the prospects for a lazy summer afternoon in the pub are bleaker. The concern is that the low cost of a pint means that it won’t be financially viable for a pub to open its garden while taking in just a small number of people – whereas a more expensive restaurant could manage. But entrepreneurial landlords will be encouraged to think outside the box.
The first holiday likely to be allowed will be camping – if that works out, then private home hire could be next. Hotels are viewed as harder to reopen due to the number of people coming and going. Discussions are under way over an extended holiday season – not just the typical high season of peak summer months – given that changing circumstances mean the traditional holiday period cannot be relied upon.
Ministers are considering promoting parts of the UK that are usually off the tourist trail. With an increase expected in the number of domestic tourists, it’s not only viewed as an opportunity to promote undiscovered spots – it could also be what’s needed to keep MPs on side. On Tory WhatsApp, Devon and Cornwall MPs are already worried about an influx of people to their constituencies – with locals concerned about the virus spreading. However, in No 10 there’s a sense that “common sense” will allow everyone an opportunity to explore.
However, for all the efforts to keep the UK entertained this summer, the biggest risk factor may be not the weather but the economy. The furlough scheme is up for review in August and companies will be asked to pay a higher contribution. There is concern among MPs that this could be a crunch point for high unemployment. If that comes to pass, no amount of ice-cream by the coast or sitting around campfires will be enough to distract from the bad times ahead.