Over the past couple of months, I have managed to do what would have seemed impossible over a year ago; that is, go abroad. I have been on two breaks to Berlin and Paris, where I relished the chance to do touristy things again. But, on a less romantic note, these trips also gave me the opportunity to see how Covid policies are playing out elsewhere.
Yesterday it was interesting to see a Times piece titled “Why Europe is ahead with control of Covid (for now)”, which started with the question “Is it the German mask-wearing habit that is putting Britain to shame?”
Though the article turned out to be quite fair in weighing up different pandemic strategies in Europe, it got me thinking about my time away – as well as whether Britain idolises other countries too much.
It seems to me we have something of a “looking over our shoulder” syndrome about the Continent; a perception that others must be doing something better than us at getting Coronavirus under control.
Indeed, a recent YouGov poll suggests many English people are highly sympathetic to some of the policies that are enforced in France and Germany, with 81 per cent of people supporting masks on transport, 76 per cent masks in shops and 67 per cent social distancing in pubs and restaurants.
Already the Government is being called on to unleash its “Plan B” Coronavirus strategy before Plan A has been allowed to get started. At every turn we seem to want more restrictions, convinced these will stem a winter wave of Coronavirus.
% of English people who would support bringing back…
Masks on transport: 81%
Masks in shops: 76%
Social distancing in pubs/restaurants: 67%
2m rule: 59%
Rule of 6 indoors: 42%
No large events: 42%
No household mixing indoors: 30%
Full lockdown: 20%https://t.co/Yu9zzDKV7p pic.twitter.com/xXgLmqCC0L
— YouGov (@YouGov) October 26, 2021
Being abroad, however, has convinced me that the Government has actually struck a sensible balance in its management of Covid; one that lockdown sceptics would be more grateful for if they lived under the alternative.
The most noticeable difference is how strict France and Germany are about face masks, which are called for in almost every indoor setting. Even at an outdoor exhibition in Berlin, where people were metres away from each other, this rule was in place, with little indication it will be removed any time soon.
Stranger than that, though, was being asked to show proof of vaccine in order to have some moules marinière at a Parisien cafe. Even the waitress looked embarrassed as she asked for our records, and added that the decision was not up to her. Polls suggest that Brits are keen on such a measure – but we should think hard about its impact.
Some reading this will say that these rules are no big deal. Was it really so hard for me to get my vaccine passport at a restaurant? I would argue, however, that small changes shouldn’t be downplayed; they add up, making our lives more complicated and miserable (who wants to demonstrate their health status for some moules?).
The extent to which Coronavirus has changed our society became obvious to me as I arrived at the Eurostar – having forgotten to fill in my Passenger Locator Form. It turned out that tens of others were in the same boat, and we huddled together in the entrance, manically typing our passport details onto our phones. It seemed like one sure way to help Coronavirus spread quickly. Either way, having to worry about a locator form, a passport, vaccine passport and train ticket is no fun – and you can bet the list of travel requirements will only increase with the next crisis.
Ultimately we should be more appreciative of the UK approach to Coronavirus, which remains less stringent than others in Europe. In general, there’s a tendency to think restrictions should only go one way (becoming stricter) and that urge becomes stronger when France, Germany or another European country has moved in such a direction. But free choice (and, yes, that includes the decision to wear a mask) and less admin matter too; they are hallmarks of greater freedoms.
This week Professor Sir Pollard, one of the creators of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, warned that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to European countries in regards to high numbers of Covid cases, as we are doing so much testing. He added that the Government has to do what’s right for the British people, instead of comparing internationally. Hear, hear!
One of the ironies of the last year is that, despite having left the EU, we all too often have a knee-jerk urge to converge with its biggest players on Covid strategy. In the initial stages of the pandemic, many praised Germany for its approach. But what’s so great about indefinite mask wearing? We have to define our own way forward in the Covid wars; lead, even, in the path towards normality. Forget Plan A, B or whatever next; we must plan British.