“Is a roadmap the same as Google maps?” said my youngest, as my heart was crushed at the idea that the moniker of a global capitalist giant had replaced the concept of a road and a map in his head. “It was the case, once upon a time, that everyone had a massive dog-eared road atlas in the boot of their car, that became almost immediately out of date after purchase. And that was how we got around.”
He looked dumbfounded at the stupidity of all the people who lived in the past. But he can talk – he once asked me if people had record players in their cars when I was little. I am not even 40.
I truly hope that like the big old roadmap, this one doesn’t age poorly. The government has much ground to make up for us, the public, to trust what they say. For too many months, the government have said something one day, only for it to be found wanting almost immediately.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said again and again that schools would be going back in January. Hell, I even bought some new school shoes for my son who thinks I was born in the Jurassic era. Those shoes remain unworn. The impression was that border checks and quarantine were pointless and had been ruled out, but the government have now decided that border quarantines are essential and when mentioning them in his roadmap speech, the PM acted as if he had always thought that. Except he didn’t seem to until less than three weeks ago.
I, like everyone else in the country, am worried about possible Covid-19 mutations. But I don’t mind seeing a mutation in Johnson’s attitude; it should have been more considered from the beginning of this crisis. In his statement concerning the way out of the pandemic, I found his sombre tone and cautionary approach to be welcome. It appeared that finally – instead of crash-bang-wallop, everything changing overnight, your kids in and out of school as if doing a constant educational hokey-cokey – there would be thorough review and intervals.
At every stage in this crisis, I have hoped that Johnson would do the right thing. Not because I like him or agree with him, but because I like my constituents whose lives are in his hands. Yesterday, he did a passable job of an earnest performance. Or at least that was the case until Keir Starmer stood up and asked him some completely reasonable questions.
How would he make schools safe? Why didn’t he think vaccinating teachers would help? What was he doing for the 3 million self-employed people left essentially with no help over the past year? Johnson didn’t answer any of it, and made some rubbish jibe about Brexit, which was both nonsensical and irrelevant. (I guess we have all had an annoying song stuck in our head before, that we can't stop humming.)
Johnson should have carried through with the prime ministerial schtick and just answered the questions. I mean, why would he tell us, the viewing public, exactly how the government are going to ensure schools are safe enough? Why would he expand on how we will cope as parents with the return to the constant concern of our children being sent home every other week? Why would he think that he owed answers to millions of people who are impoverished and have received no support? These questions need answers this week – not next week, nor the week after.
I agree with most of the points on the roadmap – and the speed and rationale behind what has been outlined (although, on a personal note, I would pretty much give up all my worldly goods to have a haircut and get my nails done right now). By and large, I think slow caution is the right way to proceed.
I want kids back in school mainly because of my concerns for those who are not always safe at home. I agree that socialising together must play second-fiddle to that. But then I see everyone out having BBQ breakfasts in New Zealand, and I am reminded that we are only having to choose between those because our prime minister didn’t choose the options with care last year. Instead, he seemed to want to act out a fantasy of being a war general taking on a battle in a muddy field.
To act victoriously, and say things were “ramping up” and that we were “world beating” at this and that. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Britons were dying or were going to die.
The air of caution is welcome – finally a proper system for review and consideration before a rush for everyone to have a mini-Glastonbury in their back garden. The sober and proper response may have finally arrived. Now the work starts for all of us in Westminster.
We cannot let this roadmap become immediately out of date because of a failure to properly plan and execute the return of schools, or the checks at our borders. We must hear something pretty sharpish about how the government will tackle those who simply cannot afford to be tested because of their need to work – and we should not be criticised or accused of “playing politics” for asking for these answers.
I want this roadmap to work, much more than I want my fringe to be out of my eyes. Let’s hope it doesn’t age like the big, old, yellow road-atlas used to. Because if it does, it won’t just mean you end up lost in the middle of a new estate in Milton Keynes. It means there will be even more people lost and impoverished in Milton Keynes and everywhere else.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley
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