As published in the Times:
As an MP I don’t only see the plight of British holidaymakers in France, Spain, Croatia, Austria . . . on the news. I hear directly from my constituents about the dire impact of the government’s quarantine decision.
The frontline worker who won’t be able to go to work tomorrow morning. The small business owner who finds themselves without their colleagues. The grandparents who can’t help with childcare.
My friend Grant Shapps understands personally the impact sudden quarantine changes have. What is clear is that he won’t have made this decision lightly and without listening to the scientific advice.
But what is also clear is the advice the transport secretary is getting is wrong.
The secretary of state needs to take his civil servants to task when they give him flawed data and let him go on TV incorrectly stating airport testing would “probably only capture a very small percentage, scientists suggest perhaps only 7 per cent, of actual cases”.
This government has said they are “guided by the science”. So, let’s be clear on where this particular piece of science came from and look at the science on airport testing. This 7 per cent figure came early in the crisis where we lacked “real world data” and was based on one test. We now have an abundance of findings so let’s learn from others ahead of us in the race.
Let’s look at Jersey as a case study, which started “testing on arrival” at airports in May. Last month, Jersey conducted over 20,000 tests on inbound travellers at the border — equivalent to 20 per cent of the island’s population. The system detected 17 cases of Covid, of which 13 were active and these people were immediately quarantined. Jersey had only four cases of “in community” infection last month.
Moving on to Iceland, which introduced “testing on arrival” a month later in June. When asked about the 7 per cent, out of date figure, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist was clear, concise and categorical. His reply? “I am convinced that it is much higher than 7 per cent”.
Now let’s look to the 30 countries (yes 30) around the world that have started airport testing trials, including our continental counterparts in Germany who have now introduced mandatory testing from certain locations. These countries have avoided quarantining 500,000 of their citizens when they returned home from a much-needed holiday, so long as they could prove they were Covid clear.
Faced with this barrage of real-world scientific data, why is the Department for Transport briefing cabinet ministers with out-of-date modelling on airport testing? Why is this incorrect data being used to justify a quarantine system that destroys the livelihoods of people reliant on an aviation sector that is allowed to fly? And why are false statistics being used to stop an airport testing system that Britain desperately needs?
Airbridges were always designed to be a short-term solution. The chaos of quarantine has shown that the government’s short-term solution no longer works for the long-term problem of Covid.
If we want to be guided by the science and find a long-term solution, we need to introduce trials of airport testing systems, collect comprehensive data and find out what will work best to keep people safe.
As most of us have heard by now, Heathrow is ready to introduce robust trial systems where travellers would be tested on arrival, quarantined until a second test is taken some days later, and then released once two negative results have been achieved. Other countries have already trialled a second test to ensure the veracity of the first test and are now running with only one. And it really is that simple. Countless other countries are doing this successfully (and safely) as we continue to look on and scratch our heads about a viable solution that is ready to go.
To find out what works, we need these trials.
Unless the transport secretary allows testing trials in aviation to start, holidaymakers will face constant quarantine uncertainty, our economy will remain grounded and an already terrible recession will get even worse.
Time and again our aviation industry has helped the British economy take off. Helped bring in the foreign direct investment we desperately need. Helped be the economic gateway to British industry.
Now the transport secretary needs to help British tourists, the travel industry and the economy as a whole by standing up to his department and others and get airport testing done.
And I haven’t even mentioned the impact of any meaningful negotiations this will have on trade deals we need for Brexit. Who will look at the UK as an ambitious trading nation if visitors and investors run a quarantine gauntlet each time they would like to come here? Our EU counterparts are already out of the blocks on this. We haven’t even started to warm up.