How quarantine chaos has exposed Boris Johnson again

Passengers wearing a face mask at Manchester Airport in Manchester. Photo: Anthony Devlin

Passengers wearing a face mask at Manchester Airport in Manchester. Photo: Anthony Devlin - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

As a 14-day quarentine has been imposed on Brits who have travelled to Spain, JAMES BALL criticises the government for its 'confusing' policies abroad.

When what should be a good and obvious policy becomes a fiasco, you know something fundamental has gone awry. This is what should be – but almost certainly isn't – eating away at Boris Johnson and his team this week.

During a global pandemic of a highly infectious disease, travel restrictions and quarantines are a sensible tool to be part of a country's response, and have been used effectively by multiple nations during the Covid-19 outbreak.

These restrictions work best when the country imposing them has its own outbreak under control, with coronavirus at very low levels in the population. The measures can then by used to curb or control travel from areas where the disease is much more prevalent.

If they are driven by the evidence and used in a time-limited way (rather than just to stoke anti-immigration sentiment, as some suspect Donald Trump's use of travel bans has been) then quarantine measures and travel guidance can be imposed quite reasonably, in a way that populations can come to accept as a necessary, if frustrating, way to contain Covid.


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Given all this, it is extraordinary just how much the UK has managed to bungle its implementation of this perfectly sensible idea.

The string of failings that has led to this week's summer holiday fiasco – with new official advice against all non-essential travel to Spain and quarantine measures for those returning from the country – and the potential for future restrictions relating to other nations, is revealing. And it tells us more about our government than just how it is coping with the coronavirus crisis.

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As with almost every major public health intervention from this government, from mask-wearing to junk food bans, quarantine has been the subject of at least one U-turn in recent months.

In the early days of the pandemic, when such a measure might have been useful in slowing the spread of the disease to Britain, it was used in only the most limited of ways – and largely dismissed by our public health experts as well as by our politicians.

Several months later, after the UK had suffered one of the worst outcomes in terms of Covid cases and deaths in the world, the government announced it would, after all, introduce a quarantine on those arriving from overseas – at a time when current UK cases were still higher than many of the places travellers would have to quarantine from.

This effectively left the UK suggesting people arriving from countries far safer than the UK should isolate themselves, largely irrationally. However, as soon as the policy was announced, newspapers were already trailing that 'air bridges' would imminently be launched to most major tourist destinations from the UK – meaning that the policy would become largely irrelevant almost as soon as it was enacted.

The result, once again, was a confusing flurry of noise with very little clear signal. It was evident Johnson was determined to see headlines saying he had 'saved summer holidays', even if he was only 'saving' them from a policy his own government had just launched.

Sure enough, the media storm around the new measures, which meant holidays were possible, focused on this good news more than the caveats and the risks that went along with the changes.

Many families, doubtless inspired in part by the pressure of months of confinement at close quarters with one another, seized upon the opportunity to book trips abroad.

Spain, in recent days, has become the first example of how that can go wrong. Holidaymakers had been positively encouraged to book trips, for their own sake and to help the economy in the UK and their destination alike – travel and tourism face annihilation from long shutdowns.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, led the way, disclosing on the Today programme, after the guidance on non-essential overseas travel was relaxed, that he was taking a family holiday abroad.

Shapps had previously warned that anyone booking a holiday for August would be taking a chance, but he went out of his way to reassure Today listeners that things were different now: 'Of course, since that time the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been able to change their travel advice. We have established air bridges or international travel corridors to a number of different countries allowing that to happen. These are personal choices but we have issued guidance now for airlines to ensure that people can travel in a Covid-safe manner as well. So there is much more structure in place now as we approach the summer.'

The precise risks involved in those 'personal choices' were not fleshed out, but they would have become clear to Shapps this week, when he was forced to cut short his trip to Spain so he could get through his quarantine period.

Anyone who booked a holiday after March knew about the existence of the coronavirus pandemic – and anyone who booked more recently in theory knew about the possibility of 'air bridges' being suspended and quarantine imposed too.

That means that hardly a single travel insurance policy on the market will cover any disruption caused by either, leaving families on the hook for cancelled holidays they are no longer confident they should take, because they fear further quarantines could be imposed.

This has only been the start of the misery for families already overseas: employers are not obliged to pay workers who can't do their jobs because of quarantine, leaving some facing two weeks with no income – and some fearing that their employer could simply fire them.

While the latter outcome is not technically allowable, for many workers in insecure employment (or with less than two years in post), there would be almost no legal recourse to prevent it.

This leaves people fearing their jobs, and worrying about how to pay the bills if they get caught in quarantine for following government encouragement to take a holiday – and official advice to rely on Universal Credit to cover that fortnight is hardly going to inspire confidence in anyone who knows that system, even slightly.

For a government supposedly desperate to reassure us about getting back to normal, these failings are dismal. As we hear more and more from travellers affected in the days and weeks to come, their stories will shatter the confidence of families who were previously willing to chance a holiday.

Given the huge delays in the government introducing policies on travel restrictions in the first place, there was ample time to think through ways to support those who might get caught up in quarantine, to cover the lack of travel insurance (perhaps via a government insurance scheme) and – crucially – to ensure all the risks and possibilities were well communicated and understood.

Yet again, the government has been the most significant obstacle to its own plans on coronavirus. Its shoddy messaging and incompetent handling are the main hurdles to getting back to normal – not resistance or a lack of goodwill from any parties involved.

The irony of the whole thing is that this particular quarantine restriction may not even be especially good for public health: it covers Majorca and Tenerife, islands hundreds of miles from Spain's Covid-19 hotspots, for example, but not southern France, a mere 20 minute drive from some of Catalonia's outbreaks.

The reason given is the complexity involved in enforcing rules limiting lockdowns to specific regions of countries – but given the UK quarantine system is in practice largely voluntary and based on goodwill (only one person has been fined for breaching quarantine to date), there is very little enforcement to complicate.

The result of all this has been to bewilder and annoy Spain, who rightly feel unfairly treated by the blanket ban, to cause financial hardship to British holidaymakers already there, and to stress and dishearten those planning a summer holiday.

This is not what anyone would call a triumph for British policymaking in Europe.

Managing quarantines and travel bans is much, much simpler than the preparations to come as the transition period runs out at the end of the year.

Those preparations will require far more goodwill, quick-thinking, clear communication and creative thinking. Three word slogans will not get the job done here.

That phase of Brexit will rely just as much on consumer and business confidence as coronavirus reopening has so far.

The government has given us few reasons to hope, and every reason to worry. How long will this administration continue destroying itself from the inside – and how much else will it bring down with it?

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