To New Zealand now, for a glimpse of an endless future: the country, the poster-child for seeing Covid-19 coming and reacting adeptly to it, has announced two new coronavirus infections this week after a 24-day streak without any cases. You can see where these infections came from, can’t you? Both cases were linked to travellers from the UK.
The particulars of the New Zealand case are very sad, so there’s no need to dwell on them – two women from the same family travelled with special dispensation to visit a dying parent. Contorting these personal, life-altering events into the new reality of an infected planet will be an issue until a vaccine emerges – and New Zealand does, broadly, seem to have the issue in hand. But the whole thing does raise sharp-edged questions about the viability of tourists from a country, England, that seems to have met the threat of coronavirus with, “Well, we clapped 10 times in a row then reopened B&Q.” Will all Brits gets tarred with the same brush, and never be allowed to go on holiday again? And, perhaps more importantly: should we really be allowed to?
The first question is one of practicality: as countries around Europe tackle their varying decreasing infection rates, tentative conversations about international travel can start up again, replete as they are with corona-speak: the UK is in talks with Portugal and Greece, both countries with fairly low infection rates, about establishing “air bridges” where travel will be possible between them without a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. (You can already hear your inbox groaning with overseas wedding rescheduling, can’t you?) Meanwhile, various clusters of countries in Asia, Australasia and the Nordic regions are setting up “travel bubbles”, free travel regions where citizens can fly around more or less normally again, although presumably with a lot more anti-bac wipes in their carry-on. Denmark and Norway have already shunned travel from Sweden, which didn’t enforce lockdown, and you can expect more diplomacy along these lines in the following weeks and months. The future of travel currently being mooted looks very much like picking your way barefoot across a carpet strewn with Lego: possible, though not exactly enjoyable.
But the second is more an issue of philosophy: why would any nation want an influx of tourists from these isles? We’re astonishingly bad at going on holiday, and being in other places: we’re either insisting on a fry-up breakfast on the coast of Spain, getting arrested for having full intercourse on a beach in Thailand, posturing around Dubai asking where we can get a drink – no, honestly mate, surely you’ve got beer, come on mate, no really, where’s the beer? – or we’re showing up in the US hoping our accents sounds fancy enough to get us laid, no questions asked, while stoically refusing to tip. It is impossible to go anywhere in South America without stumbling across a British kid who is “going to Durham next year” pounding out artlessly on a bongo. And I’m no better: I’ve never once successfully spoken a single sentence of another language while travelling around Europe on holiday, because I am an elite combination of stupid and lazy. Every summer I just clonk around Italy making wide hand gestures and saying, ”Doz cervezas, please.” Lock me up. Lock you up. Close the air bridges and pop the bubbles. We don’t deserve holidays.
It makes you wonder whether the British government has enough friends left to really make international travel realistic for us any time soon. There must be nations squinting at England’s heaving beaches and horse races and its very premature lockdown relaxation measures, and thinking: “Hmm, wonder if they’ve really taken coronavirus seriously enough to come in?” The world is crackling electrically with political upheaval and, though we’re a nation divided, this could be the one thing to push us over the edge, to surge together as one: if the ineptitude of the British government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic threatens our precious holibobs, then you may as well leave that Churchill statue in the box for the summer. The streets will beat with rage.
Historically, of course, it’s arguable that British people should ever have been let out in the first place: in his 2012 book, All the Countries We’ve Ever Invaded: And the Few We Never Got Round to, historian Stuart Laycock surveyed 200 nations and found that this island had, in one form or another, invaded all but 22 of them (or, 90%). Maybe a year or two of restricted travel will give us time for a history lesson we so desperately need. There’s always holidaying at home, of course. I’ve heard Barnard Castle is lovely at this time of year.
• Joel Golby is the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant