Lionel Shriver

I’m living in a country that won’t let me out

I’m living in a country that won’t let me out
Getty Images
Text settings
Comments

Anyone who’s been through customs Down Under isn’t surprised by the region’s OTT response to Covid. Having been X-rayed before boarding, one’s possessions are X-rayed off the plane. So shrill are the threatening posters, fine warnings and chiding announcements about importing bio-contaminants that on discovering an apple core in your pocket in the endless customs queue, you’re apt to throw up. The culture is obsessed with contagion.

Yet Britain’s Labour leadership, who throughout this pandemic have interpreted ‘opposition party’ to mean ‘people who advocate government policy even more vehemently than the government itself’, now look wistfully to Down Under as a Valhalla where they really do Covid right. Near-total border closures and tyrannical police-state lockdown enforcement seem to have tamed the tiny beast, with daily new positive tests in single digits. Australians and New Zealanders may go about their business — or at least they could do until a single case in Perth sent the state back to playing freeze tag again. So any sense of normality is provisional, and even strictly sealed borders still leak.

Those suffering from Aussie envy are presumably the same folks who peer mournfully through the bars of Wandsworth prison, where those lucky sods get three meals a day and free gym memberships, all thanks to Her Majesty. For after five agreeable book tours in Australia, I might not be going back. Rather than be billed $3,000 for never setting foot outside a tiny room with crummy food, treated the whole fortnight as more of a pariah than your average murderer, I’d rather put an ice pick through my eye. Like so many other would-be visitors, I’ve seen the Sydney Opera House before, and a refresher glimpse just ain’t worth the price. Yet it’s these very quarantine hotels that the UK is set to imitate next week.

At the moment, the poor gits who will be fined and jailed for displaying the questionable judgment of entering the United Kingdom will only be arrivals from 33 ‘red list’ countries — but on any given day that list could include 34 countries, or 104. For Brits, all outbound travel is therefore risky, even if you meet the government’s stringent conditions for actually being allowed to leave your own country (education, medical needs, work that can’t be done from home). Should you blag your way out of Heathrow, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be thrown into a Best Western slammer on return. With this tippy-toe government, trust any showily cautionary protocol to expand.

So it’s worth asking just how fortunate those Aussies and Kiwis really are. They can’t leave either. A foreigner would have to be a complete idiot to visit. Some 40,000 nationals are stranded abroad, many unable to afford the quarantine back home. The son of a close friend in London lives in New Zealand, and who knows when the family will be united again? The aviation, tourism and hospitality industries have been devastated. Most crucially: yeah, these countries have sealed themselves off from a world teeming with slime and impurity. But once hermetic restrictions are in place, how do you ever lift them? Wouldn’t ever opening up make all your sacrifices for naught?

After all, in December we were all happy-clappy about effective vaccines providing a route out of this mess, but that optimism didn’t last five minutes. Now we have to protect ourselves from vaccine-dodging ‘variants’. We’re to batten down our hatches against not only the variants we know lurk out there, but the variants that might lurk out there — still unidentified, or perhaps cropping up in future. Given all viruses mutate, the logic therefore runs that the total border closure Keir Starmer advocates would remain in place until the end of time. We would cower on these islands eternally quaking in our Wellingtons over whether the Masque of the Red Death might some day swim the Channel. We’d never go anywhere again, and we’d never let anyone else come here either.

Hardly a global hub, Down Under has never experienced the UK’s massive Covid outbreaks. So closed borders would be especially farcical in Britain. The virus is here to stay. What’s Starmer’s plan, to keep Covid in? For Britain has demonstrated itself capable of generating its own mutations in-house. If only out of boredom, we can argue to no effect about whether the borders should have been closed a year ago — although that would still have trapped the UK in the same eternal Brigadoon in which Down Under is stuck. Border closure now would wreak more pointless self-destruction.

Plenty of people don’t really want to go anywhere anyway, and a fair whack of such killjoy agoraphobes quite enjoy telling folks who do want to go places: ‘So there, you can’t!’ But I for one don’t fancy turning Britain into a giant prison ship. I thought the statute making it actually illegal to go on holiday was brought in with a chilling lack of fanfare. Even if I don’t have immediate plans to travel, living in a country that won’t let me out palpably changes what it feels like to be here. Particularly when anyone who does manage to leave risks being put in jail for ten years if they don’t confess to visiting certain 'red list' countries. Remember how we used to view those pitiful sods trapped behind the Iron Curtain? Before 1989, that was a defining element of what made us feel sorry for Eastern Europeans. Not only did they have to queue for pork chops, but their government would never allow them to go somewhere else where you didn’t have to queue for pork chops.

I loved living in a mobile world. I won’t give up on a return to that world. Either those mandatory pre-flight PCR tests work or they don’t. Either these vaccines work or they don’t. I’ll not hide indefinitely under the bed in terror of a mythological variant. If nationwide inoculation won’t marshal enough bloody safety to resume proper air travel, then will we have to wait for global inoculation? That’s expected to take seven years. Even then, what about variants? No wonder depression is soaring.

Quarantine hotel
‘I flew in this morning.’