The government’s battle cry in the fight against the pandemic is ‘Follow the science’. But it is hard to see the science behind the disastrous and potentially crippling 14-day quarantine rule which came into effect on Monday — or, rather, failed to come into effect in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s not been made available or published anywhere, and even the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, politely refrained from giving the ruling his endorsement, saying it was a matter for the politicians: ‘They make the policy, and they make the timing decisions.’
There’s nothing remotely logical about closing the door on visitors to Britain when it’s been flapping wide open for months with no restrictions whatsoever, including during those awful days in April when infections were at their highest. The cabinet is split on the issue — and there is no excuse for this. The Prime Minister should have asserted himself weeks ago and now looks like he’s following the mood rather than determining it, as he makes it known — albeit not officially — that as of 29 June, a number of ‘air bridges’ will be set up with countries that have low infection rates, such as France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
This will, essentially, give the green light for travel this summer without any requirement to self-isolate. To some extent, this will appease travel companies and should be enough to stop British Airways, Ryanair and easyJet pursuing their legal action against the government — and halt a similar move by the new Quash Quarantine coalition, representing some of the largest hotel groups and tour operators.
But how on earth has this debacle been allowed to escalate so dangerously? Certainly, the Prime Minister hasn’t sounded as if he’s been able to convince himself, never mind anyone else, proffering at one point that the quarantine rule could be withdrawn when ‘other countries are in at least as good a position as we are’. This unfortunate remark prompted a letter in the Times asking: ‘Why end the delusion there? He could offer to train [other countries] in our “world-beating” contact-tracing system.’ Or, given that Britain has the second highest death toll from Covid-19 in the world, perhaps we could teach those ‘others’ a thing or two about mass testing, PPE, making sure coronavirus patients are never returned to care homes and, obviously, not allowing a huge event like the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead when the virus was spreading at a gallop.
Every sector likes to think itself as special and the world of travel is no different. In Britain, tourism contributes £106 billion to the economy and supports 2.6 million jobs. The hope was that by 2025 it would be worth more than £257 billion, around 10 per cent of our GDP. But not any longer. Estimates vary, but one chief executive of a travel firm tells me the industry could shrink by a quarter, while Visit Britain estimates £19.7 billion could be lost. ‘A hotel can strip out costs fast in a crisis but for a travel company it’s impossible because it’s far more complicated to undo a package than it is to set one up,’ says Ted Wake of Kirker Travel, which employs 52 people, of whom 30 have been furloughed.
Yes, some of the big fish such as Scott Dunn, now owned by a private equity company, and Tui, a public company with considerable emergency funds at its disposal, should survive. But for the minnows specialising in niche holidays, there will be no ‘new normal’, as the awful phrase goes. How can there be when these companies have made nothing during April, May, June and possibly much of July, and find themselves stuck between the rock of having furloughed staff and the hard place of needing enough people to deal with unhappy customers who want their money back — when there isn’t any cash to return?
The theory that Dominic Cummings is using all this as a Brexit power-play to show the EU how much it will miss tourists from the UK, and therefore it had better start negotiating in earnest, is intriguing but far-fetched. What’s needed is for Boris Johnson to accept that mistakes have been made. The public will support him more if, as he said at the start of the crisis, he ‘levels’ with people, has no truck with bluster and takes the politics out of it, a strategy that might just disarm the increasingly confident Keir Starmer.
Putting up the closed sign on Britain’s door is so, well, un-British, so defeatist. We should be taking far more of a lead in getting a pan-European consensus on dealing with the virus. We must realise, as many other countries have, that air travel is necessary for trade and that ‘without it there is no global Britain’, as Theresa May put it in the House of Commons recently.
The lack of communication, the procrastination and sheer incompetence displayed over the quarantine issue has exposed an appalling absence of coordination between government departments. Poor old Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, was slapped down only a couple of weeks ago for suggesting that ‘air bridges’ could be negotiated — and now, suddenly, they will be.
The Prime Minister was alarmed by the recent YouGov poll that found 60 per cent of those surveyed supported a 14-day quarantine period. But the question was phrased in such a way that people thought this referred to visitors coming from all over the world, including China and Iran. Market researcher AudienceNet will release the results of its own poll this week, showing that 90 per cent of respondents think the quarantine policy will damage the UK economy.
Amid all this, who knows what sort of message our man in Paris, Rome or Madrid has been instructed by the Foreign Office to convey — but I doubt it will be as proactive or upbeat as what both the French and Italian ambassadors in London have been saying. They want to see UK travel restrictions lifted and both are keen to welcome visitors this summer, while Spain’s tourism minister says she’s ‘itching’ to have us knocking back the cava on the Costas.
If the Greek islands, where the death toll has been minimal, are keen to have holidaymakers from Britain, where the number of deaths have reached 40,000, then we should say thank you very much, take them at their word — and return the invitation with warmth and enthusiasm.
Mark Palmer is the Daily Mail’s travel editor.