As published in the Mail On Sunday:
When two politicians who, for years, have clashed over policies now find themselves on the same side of the argument about a mandatory 14-day quarantine period, it must be time to reflect whether the Government has got it wrong.
The Home Secretary’s policy is a devastating blow for anyone hoping to holiday abroad this summer, for the airline industry and for British international businesses.
Above all it sends a signal to the rest of the world, whether in terms of international investment or the lucrative and essential higher education and research sector, that Britain is closed for business.
Priti Patel argued that it was right to introduce the measures from June 8 rather than at the beginning of the lockdown because this would be when ‘it will be the most effective’.
This does not make sense. If ever there was a right time for travel restrictions, it was at the beginning of the pandemic when it could have flattened the curve.
In February, the World Health Organisation gave guidance on the effectiveness of travel restriction
It said such measures ‘may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time, even if only a few days, to rapidly implement effective preparedness measures’.
But the UK decided not to go down that path, unlike countries such as Australia and South Korea, and Hong Kong, which banned travel from the Hubei province in China and then imposed restrictions on inbound travellers from all countries as well as a strict 14-day quarantine on anyone entering their country.
Not only is the timing of the Government’s announcement odd, but the effectiveness of the strategy is questionable.
Greece has said international flights to tourist destinations will start to resume gradually from July 1.
But not many British tourists will fly to Greece if they have to undergo two weeks’ quarantine after they come home.
This will be particularly true for those who’ve scrimped to pay for what is certainly not the kind of ‘big, lavish international holiday’ referred to by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Also, who’ll pay any cancellation fees? It won’t be the Greek hotel or the airline – as it’s not their fault.
Will the Government pay? After all, it is their fault. We doubt it.
Here’s betting it will be families who have to scrap their holiday.
What’s more, comparative infection rates also prove the nonsense of this policy.
In our part of the world, Yorkshire and the Humber, there have been 13,598 cases of the virus.
The whole of Greece, with a population of around 10.7 million, has seen only 2,853.
In other words, in Yorkshire and the Humber, for every million people, 2,482 have been confirmed to have contracted the virus.
In Greece, it’s just 266 per million. Other countries have been more successful than Britain at containing the virus.
For example, infection rates in Cyprus, Malta and Latvia are persistently lower.
This means that someone travelling by train from Leeds or Doncaster to London with no restrictions or checks is 4.7 times more likely to have the virus than a holidaymaker returning to Heathrow from Greece.
Then there is the case of Scotland. Anyone crossing the border from Scotland to England will not be quarantined.
This, too, makes a nonsense of any scientific justification for restricting travel from areas with much lower infection rates.
The sensible route is to allow holidaymakers to travel to and from countries that have lower rates of infection and, if necessary, only quarantine travellers from countries with higher rates of infection.
Of course, as we attempt to get back to some kind of normality, every policy must strike a careful balance between the public health need and the economic and social impacts.
Coronavirus has wreaked havoc across our economy, especially in the airline and tourism sectors. Ryanair and British Airways alone have cut 15,000 jobs.
The new blanket quarantine policy only serves to draw out the damaging effects of the virus on these sectors and puts further jobs at risk.
The Transport Secretary has floated the idea of ‘air-bridges’ whereby travellers would be free to move between the UK and countries with low levels of infection.
Downing Street and the Foreign Office quickly branded the idea as ‘unworkable’.
But it is possible to manage people returning from abroad. We can learn from countries such as Austria, which has introduced a system at Vienna airport, whereby visitors or returning citizens can go for a spot-test and, providing they get the all-clear, can avoid a 14-day quarantine period.
Other countries are introducing extensive temperature screening at airports.
Taken together, these measures could help identify passengers with the virus and allow them to be treated and isolated as and when necessary.
Greece is open to agreeing an air-bridges deal with the UK, with Greek tourism minister Haris Theocharis saying they would drop the requirement of quarantine for UK visitors if we did not impose the requirement on Greeks coming here.
Allowing free travel to and from countries with a low infection rate seems an entirely sensible plan. It would help protect tourism jobs and slowly bring back a sense of normality.
That is why the Government must think again.