Throughout the pandemic, Britain has taken a relatively relaxed approach to controlling its borders. Restrictions on travel have come and gone since last March, but, on the whole, Britain has always leaned towards openness. The government has trusted people to make sensible judgements and follow quarantine rules upon return. Now attitudes have shifted.
This afternoon, Home Secretary Priti Patel laid out the details of the government’s new, quasi-Australia style quarantine policy. Arrivals from 22 ‘high-risk’ areas will soon be forced to quarantine in a hotel when they arrive in Britain. There will be no exceptions to the rule, and travellers must stay put for ten days, even if they test negative for Covid-19. The ‘red list’ of countries include Portugal, South Africa, Brazil and Cape Verde.
This crackdown was a long time coming. When Denmark found a mutant strain of Covid last autumn amongst its mink farms, the UK became the only country in the world to close its borders to anyone from there. Did the fast response acknowledge regret among ministers about not being stricter on the border last spring? Quite possibly. This time, the government has been much clearer about the reasoning behind this decision. Priti Patel told the Commons:
'The government's focus is on protecting the UK’s world-leading vaccination programme - a programme that we should be proud of. And reducing the risk of a new strain of the virus being transmitted from someone coming into the UK.'
The details of this quarantine scheme are still up in the air and it is not yet clear when it will come into effect. But despite these tougher measures, it seems that some in the cabinet wanted the government to go further. Had Patel had it her way, the measures would have extended to everyone arriving in Britain. Boris Johnson stopped short of this for now. But once the infrastructure is in place, it is easy to see how arrivals from any country, with no advanced warning, could be affected.
Once again, this raises some big questions for the government. Firstly, what risk is the government prepared to take as it considers easing lockdown measures? Boris Johnson confirmed today that the current rules won’t be lifted until 8 March at the earliest. MPs were then subsequently told by Patel that there is ‘not a single measure that mitigates risk entirely’. But the government needs to come clean about the balancing act involved in lifting measures, as its successful vaccination rollout creates space to consider liberalising restrictions.
Another looming question is to what extent the government is now actively striving to emulate Australia and New Zealand’s Covid responses. Those countries' strict border policy was originally crafted to keep them effectively isolated from the world until there was a viable vaccine; Britain, however, is bringing in stricter border policy in response to securing vaccines. This reasoning could go one of two ways: it could be temporary, staying in place until the most vulnerable in the UK are vaccinated; or it could last much longer, potentially being switched on and off over in the years to come, as new strains emerge.
Perhaps these questions – and others – will all be answered when Johnson lays out his ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown next month. For now, though, what is clear is that the government is leaning towards a cautious approach, which involves tougher measures but stops short of completely cutting ties with the rest of the world.
Nonetheless, as tomorrow’s Spectator leader notes, Britain will be one of the first countries to close its borders to countries based on a hypothetical scenario – the possibility of a mutant Covid strain that can evade vaccines – rather than an immediate threat.