Britain’s coronavirus quarantine won’t fly

by THERESE RAPHAEL/ pic by AFP

JUST as coronavirus infections weaken, European countries lift foreign travel restrictions and people gear up for the possibility that we might actually get on an airplane again, one of the world’s largest tourism markets is effectively shutting down.

Under rules to be finalised, anyone arriving in the UK from June 8, including returning Britons, will have to quarantine for 14 days, with a hefty fine levied on those found in breach of the rules.

The government claims that the quarantine is based on “the latest scientific evidence” and that it’s necessary to prevent further transmission of Covid-19. But, as with the 2m social distancing rule I wrote about last week, the supporting evidence appears tenuous, while the economic impact from the measure will be substantial.

There’s no question that air travel was a deadly multiplier for the spread of Covid-19. A mathematical simulation from a group of modellers at Stanford University, published last month, showed how limiting passenger flights was key to reducing transmission rates.

Quarantines can be hugely effective, especially when a virus can be transmitted before symptoms develop, and those potentially incubating the infection can be identified and isolated.

But much depends on the rules being observed. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Toronto tried to impose a large-scale quarantine, but found compliance was poor, with only 57% of people quarantined following the rules on isolation. Arguably, the measures then did more harm than good, fuelling public anxiety and requiring enormous government resources to enforce.

It’s not clear that the UK’s quarantine would be observed or enforceable. For the most part, police here haven’t even tried to get people to comply with the new number limits on gatherings in outdoor spaces, breaking up only large groups.

As for policing homes (where presumably people would quarantine), forget it — unless the government plans to ape Bahrain, where quarantines are backed up by electronic bracelets and threats of huge fines and prison terms.

Forcing arrivals in a country to isolate themselves makes plenty of sense early in a disease’s progression, when a lack of public awareness, testing, contact tracing and protective equipment makes travellers a key vector for a virus. Britain didn’t do this back when it would have really made a difference with the new coronavirus; it’s hard to see the utility of doing it now.

Infection rates are also lower in most other countries now (the US is a notable exception), suggesting there’s more risk from domestic UK travel and tourism.

Then, there’s the economic cost. Foreign visitors aren’t exactly banging down Britain’s door right now, given its struggles to get the pandemic under control, and the country can’t afford to close down a key industry for longer than necessary.

The UK is the world’s fifth-largest tourism market, generating £146 billion (RM781.1 billion) of revenue a year (6.5% of GDP) and employing 3.1 million workers, according to the Tourism Alliance.

Even Boris Johnson’s government seems unsure of the measure. The list of exemptions is so long that many won’t even have to quarantine, even if they’re coming for a vacation rather than professional duties.

Ireland is exempt, so technically, anyone can travel into Dublin and then to the UK. (Ireland currently has a voluntary 14-day quarantine requirement for foreign visitors, due to be reviewed on June 18.) If the policy is necessary to control infection, why make it so porous?

British citizens might also face retaliatory action. Spain and Greece, popular holiday destinations for Brits, have already excluded UK tourists from a list of countries whose residents are allowed to fly in when travel restrictions are lifted.

France allows European Union nationals to enter without quarantine, but it announced a (voluntary) 14-day quarantine for countries such as Britain “whose authorities have decided, in an uncoordinated fashion, to apply 14-day quarantine measures to travellers entering their territory from European countries”.

Having weathered a political storm over his advisor Dominic Cummings’s decision to travel to the north of England during lockdown, Johnson may face another over the quarantine rules. There’s opposition from both industry groups and lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party. More than 200 travel and hospitality businesses have written to the Home Secretary Priti Patel to tell her the rules are unworkable.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the government backtracked, as it has done before during the Covid-19 crisis. A big cross-party group of MPs, including former Tory Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, has called on the government to relax the measures. There was talk this week about establishing “air bridges” between the UK and low-risk countries, although not immediately.

Reopening the travel and tourism industry obviously poses a challenge, more so when you consider the very high levels of domestic tourism that Britain will experience this summer as people shun flights, and at a time when the virus is still in evidence.

The government can afford to lift some restrictions, but probably not all of them, if it wants to keep the transmission rate down.

Yet, the quarantine measures, as constructed, are draconian. They leave a niggling sense — not for the first time since the pandemic hit — of a British policy that hasn’t been thought through and whose rationale hasn’t been clearly communicated. — Bloomberg


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.