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Damn Difficult, Booking Hotels

Summary:
Victoria Street, London SW1  “Humphrey...” “Yes, Minister?” “The BBC have been pestering me to explain why it has taken us so long to organise hotel accommodation for UK arrivals.” “Did you accept?” “Certainly not.  I told them we were working 24/7 on the plan.” “Quite right, Minister.  It has been an exceptionally difficult problem.” “You have my full support, of course Humphrey, but I don’t quite understand why it takes so long to book a few hotel rooms.  I must have asked you to do that four weeks ago.” “Just occasionally, Minister, there is the momentary lacuna in your comprehension of the workings of the civil service. For a start, we have to determine in whose domain this matter lies.  We are the steward of the national’s health but dealing with arrivals is a matter for the Home

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Victoria Street, 

London SW1 

 

“Humphrey...” 

“Yes, Minister?” 

“The BBC have been pestering me to explain why it has taken us so long to organise hotel accommodation for UK arrivals.” 

“Did you accept?” 

“Certainly not.  I told them we were working 24/7 on the plan.” 

“Quite right, Minister.  It has been an exceptionally difficult problem.” 

“You have my full support, of course Humphrey, but I don’t quite understand why it takes so long to book a few hotel rooms.  I must have asked you to do that four weeks ago.” 

“Just occasionally, Minister, there is the momentary lacuna in your comprehension of the workings of the civil service. For a start, we have to determine in whose domain this matter lies.  We are the steward of the national’s health but dealing with arrivals is a matter for the Home Office and possibly the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office also.  We must do nothing that might offend our friends overseas.” 

“Of course not.” 

“The trouble has been that my opposite number has been under pressure to publish a policy paper on preventing illegal immigration and deporting undesirables before the end of the month.  This is really urgent.  Of course, it won’t actually be a plan, just a set of possibilities for consultation to see if anyone has any other ideas.  Then they will be able to rush the Sovereign Borders Bill through Parliament sometime next year.” 

“Jolly good show but, now we’ve left the EU, we’ll have to rescue them just the same and we cannot send them back?” 

“True, Minister but at least we will be able to quarantine them in three-star hotels for two weeks. At least we will when we can agree whose responsibility that is.” 

“How about the FCO?” 

“No, they never want to be responsible for anything. But the good news is that the Home Office have just agreed to leave it to us.” 

“Thank God for that.  Can you now get onto the hotels themselves?” 

“Possibly, Minister, but the Attorney General’s Office has thrown a wrench into our delicately tuned workings.  They are concerned that forcibly locking people up for 11 days will bring a flood of Habeas Corpus writs.” 

“But aren’t these foreigners we are talking about. Well we are not sure yet whether we are quarantining just foreigners or everyone but, be that as it may, the only things all foreigners know about Britain is the Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus.” 

 “I don’t think King John was bothered about quarantine except for his brother, Richard.” 

“Well actually, Habeas Corpus only became a statute in 1679 and they had a real problem getting it through Parliament. At the final vote, the "ayes" had only two more votes than the "nays" but there were five more votes in total than the number of lords eligible to vote.  This came about because one teller counted a particularly fat lord as ten, by way of a joke, and the other teller was too dozy to notice.[1]  The Attorney General’s Office, I gather, is anxious that its validity is not challenged.” 

“Come on Humphrey.  You are pulling my leg.” 

“No joking matter, Minister. If you disregard that, consider the position of HM Treasury, namely that those being quarantined should pay for their own hotel accommodation.  You may think that is fair enough but it will be at least £1,000 a head for single people and what about couples and families? We have already had representation from citizens’ rights groups saying that we do not charge the guests of Her Majesty's Prisons, so why should we charge those we lock up in hotels?” 

“Humphrey, this is ridiculous. What about those who’ve had their two jabs? No point in quarantining them.” 

“Excluding them would be discriminatory, Minister. We are consulting widely. To quote from our draft press release: ‘Detailed work is already underway with the Home Office, Department for Transport, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and other government departments.’” 

“Oh good. It’s getting above my pay grade. I’ll ring the Prime Minister.” 

“No need for that. The Cabinet Secretary phoned just before I entered your sanctum. I understand that the PM is creating a new Cabinet sub-committee, including a number of senior Cabinet ministers, to undertake these bookings.” 

“That’s just like the old joke: how many British Cabinet ministers does it take to book some hotel rooms?” 

“That is a pleasantry, Minister, with which I am not acquainted.” 

“The answer, Humphrey, is nobody knows because it has never been done.” 

“Very droll indeed. The good news is that the PM wants you to lead the sub-committee.  After the initial flurry he does not expect it to meet more than once a week and you’ve already spoken with the Australians and New Zealanders,”  

“Yes, I expect I can manage that.  It’s an honour really.  Primus inter pares, what?” 

“The Cabinet Secretary also asked me to relay that the PM has the utmost admiration for your abilities but has asked General Sir Gordon Messenger actually to make the bookings. He’s an old Commando, with a geography degree, so he’ll know what to do.” 

“So what am I supposed to do?” 

“You will be too busy chairing the sub-committee, Minister.” 

“Let me get this straight. All arrivals from the red list countries will get the black dot when they go through immigration and, when they’ve got through customs, go straight to the buses for their hotels.” 

“What happens if they dive down into the underground instead of catching the bus?” 

“That wouldn’t be cricket, Minister.” 

“Do I need to remind you, Humphrey, that Johnny Foreigner does not play cricket and, since we sold off all the school playing fields, nor do many Brits? Which are the red list countries anyway?” 

Our press release of 18th November, which may have momentarily eluded you, stated ‘If you have been in or through any of the [33] countries listed below in the last 10 days, you will be refused entry to the UK.’ I admit it is a slightly odd list in that it does not include some countries with the highest Covid levels such as the USA, India, and Mexico. It should be updated monthly but our friends in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office do not want to rock the boat.” 

“Humphrey, surely we cannot be excluding our own returning nationals, tempting as that must be?” 

“Indeed not, Minister, just foreigners but, as the Home Office, will testify, we are not too good at rejecting the uninvited.” 

“You know, we really should have done all this a year ago.” 

“You may recall that we were so overwhelmed with our own viruses that we really did not think a few imports would matter much, even though the whole thing started of course, with imports. And actually some of your skiing friends in particular.” 

“Humphrey, that is not very kind.  I was simply standing up for diversity, as one must these days. I said we must not discriminate against foreign viruses, simply on the grounds that they are foreign.” 

“Do I take it that we may now discriminate against variants on the grounds that they are variants?” 

“Be that as it may, Humphrey, it seems we’ll all be done and dusted and ready to roll by 15th February.  I have to say that I’m very impressed.”   

“Thank you, Minister.” 

 

[1] J. E. Powell, Great Parliamentary Occasions, 1966: The Queen Anne Press. p. 65.

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Tim Ambler
Tim Ambler (born 1937) is a British organizational theorist, author and academic on the field of Marketing effectiveness. Ambler featured on Marketing's list of the 100 most powerful figures in the industry. He is cited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of the top 50 marketing experts in the world

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