Great Britain

Starter or substantial meal? A curious case of Schrodinger’s scotch egg

Another week, another round of questions to ministers about which foodstuffs a pub can serve during this pandemic.

While no help to those in tier 3 – and to be honest, little help to those in the lower tiers – Michael Gove did the rounds of the morning television shows to try and provide some clarity on the government’s tier rules.

Gove was following in the footsteps of Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, who said last month that a Cornish pasty counted as a meal only if it came with sides like chips, and Manchester police ,who deemed pizza slices served at one pub as meal, since they were “massive”.

Starting with LBC, he called a scotch egg a mere starter, before facing off against Piers Morgan on ITV’s Good Morning Britain and appeared to waver. By the time he was on ITV News, the snack counted as a “substantial meal”. A sop that “substantial meal” regulations have applied to the hospitality sector for years and so they instinctively understand its nuances does not cut the mustard at a time when clarity is so important.

The same could be said of the government’s coronavirus policy. We are in a state of lockdown, but not – the two co-existing in a space created as Boris Johnson’s ideal world. One where he does not upset the public or his own MPs. The difficulty is when the “box” is opened, scrutiny is applied to the wording, and one of those states is shattered. A case of Schrodinger’s lockdown, and Schrodinger’s scotch egg.

Full disclosure: I’m in the camp that believes we should have kept up with a stricter lockdown until Christmas to allow for a better start to the new year. But now we are in this position, those in the hospitality sector deserve precision. They also, as the rest of the population do, deserve the government not to get distracted by details around one foodstuff – or one element of the rules – when there is so much left up in the air.

From how to exit a tier, to what January (and beyond) may bring, there is still so much confusion. Even if the documentation relating to the new tiers explains some of these issues, the government has done a terrible job of briefing changes to the public without then creating extra uncertainty.

That has been true throughout the pandemic, and Gove’s latest round of television interviews have done little to dispel that notion. You can point to the media’s responsibility to ask about the broader questions and there is an argument for that. But if ministers are unable to give clear answers to the simpler questions that require detail, what hope for anything more complex?

In a tweet this afternoon, Johnson (or rather the team running his social media accounts) posted: “Good to be chairing Cabinet this morning... We now have reason to hope that by spring, community testing and vaccines will combine to end this era of restrictions.”

The “spring” was as vague as intended. Could that mean mid-March, the start of the season? Or anytime up until summer? Certainly that is beyond the 3 February “sunset clause” for restrictions that the prime minister laid out in this letter over the weekend.

So where does this all leave us? It would appear that the guessing game over the tier restrictions – and the rules attached to them – will not be over anytime soon.

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