I chose Italy for my first post-lockdown holiday. Not just because I fancied a week of fresh pasta, cold negronis and sumptuous views of lakes and mountains, but because I knew I would be welcome.
Italy, despite being among the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, was one of the first to declare itself open for business. Keenly aware of the need to protect the livelihoods of the millions of Italians who rely on foreign globetrotters, it reopened its borders to tourists way back on June 3 and quickly kicked off a charm offensive.
Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio urged other countries not to treat Italy “like a leper” and embarked on a whistlestop tour of neighbouring nations, including Germany, Slovenia and Greece, to persuade nervous travellers that La Bella Italia was the place to be.
“Come to Calabria,” the southern region’s governor Jole Santelli told would-be visitors. “There’s only one risk: that you’ll get fat.” How could I turn down an invitation like that?
At the same time, back in Britain, a rather different message was being broadcast.
Gill Haigh, managing director of Cumbria Tourism – despite an easing of restrictions and clear evidence that outdoor pursuits, at which Cumbria excels, are perfectly safe – told people to “remain at home”.
“Stay away,” said Malcolm Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall.
MP Robert Goodwill declared that “Whitby and Scarborough are not accepting visitors at this time.”
Blackpool’s tourism board rebranded itself as ‘Do Not Visit Blackpool’.
Please do not visit Blackpool during this bank holiday weekend. We know your travel plans have been affected but, please, hang in there! The time to enjoy Blackpool will come, but it’s not now. Stay home, stay safe and protect our NHS 💙— VisitBlackpool (@visitBlackpool) May 9, 2020
📷 Karl Houghton pic.twitter.com/5m6YwyPuvk
Such declarations only served to rally the more irrational locals in Britain’s beauty spots. Lake District residents erected homemade signs and roadblocks designed to keep diseased city dwellers like me at bay (never mind the fact that London, at the time, had the lowest case rate in the country). As recently as July 4, boneheaded Scottish nationalists flocked to the border to tell arrivals from England to “stay the **** out”.
It was an unedifying spectacle that will have exasperated the millions of Britons – from bar and restaurant staff to tour guides and b&b owners – who rely on domestic travel to make ends meet. And, as it turned out, the fears were wholly unfounded. We enjoyed a glorious summer of bustling beaches and discounted dinners without triggering a Covid apocalypse. The UK’s case graph remained flat throughout June, July and August. Just as importantly, free-spending staycationers (with help from the furlough scheme) kept countless businesses afloat.
Now, with financial support winding down, one might assume the need to keep our tourism industry ticking over was never more important. Even with cases now on the rise, surely we won’t witness the return of Britain’s “stay away” brigade? Think again. Patrick Vallance’s scientifically illiterate Graph of Doom has disturbed its slumber.
“Please, visit us another time,” was the message from local politicians in South Wales this week as new regional restrictions were announced, including an 11pm curfew for pubs and restaurants. “We will be delighted to welcome you back at a later date.”
I expect to see similarly negative messages in the coming weeks from other local authorities keen to jump on the myopic crush-Covid-whatever-the-cost bandwagon that plays so well with the virtue-signallers on social media. In turn, brainless locals will again start telling outsiders to clear off.
It’s idiotic. Stopping staycations will do nothing to halt the spread of this virus. If anything, Britons – particularly city folk like me – are more likely to catch Covid going about their normal lives. I come into contact with far more people during a typical week of work than I would a week in the Brecon Beacons, staying in a countryside hotel, tackling the hills, maybe stopping for a pint or two at a walkers’ boozer. Catching the virus in the great outdoors is virtually impossible, and Public Health England statistics show that just five per cent of recent Covid outbreaks were traced back to a restaurant or pub, compared to 45 per cent for care homes, 21 per cent for schools and universities, and 18 per cent for workplaces.
Restaurants and pubs to close at 10pm? Just a quick reminder, according to PHE pic.twitter.com/AEb2VfO6sy— Lisa Markwell (@lisamarkwell) September 21, 2020
Encouraging autumn holidays will also do wonders for the country’s psychological wellbeing. After six months of lockdown, cancelled celebrations and 24-hour virus fear-mongering, charities are already warning of a “mental health timebomb”, and this week Boris mapped out another six months of pain. How about a few notes of positivity, Prime Minister? Britain is lovely in the autumn, your chances of catching Covid hiking in the New Forest or the Peak District are a whisker above zero, so get out there and enjoy some fresh air and exercise – it will cheer you up and boost your immune system.
Furthermore, with Rishi Sunak’s Covid bailouts becoming far less generous, the need to support our hotels, country pubs and seaside cafes has never been greater.
I’ve just booked my next holiday on British soil – a few nights in the South Downs – and would urge others to do likewise. It threatens to be a truly bleak winter for the millions of people whose jobs are at risk, and with all the talk of saving lives, we must also do what we can to save livelihoods.