“But we’ve only just got here!” Imagine the disappointment and anger of those arriving for a holiday in Spain to be told even before they have finished unpacking that they would be obliged to undertake 14 days’ quarantine on their return. So they are faced with the decision to return almost immediately, to reduce their time away from work, or to proceed with their holiday and sort it all out when they return.
Could this situation have been dealt with better? I believe it could. At the very least, we need to learn lessons before it occurs again.
First, the criteria for quarantine should be decided by the Department of Health and Social Care, and made clear to the public. This would help people make the best decisions for themselves on future occasions. At the point when the quarantine restriction was implemented, the infection rate was rising in some parts of Spain, although not in others. Luxembourg and Belgium were also suffering a resurgence that was more serious than that in Spain, and yet they remained on the list of countries to which Britons could travel freely (although Luxembourg was removed some two weeks later). It is certainly not clear to the public – and possibly not clear to the government – what level or rate of increase in infections will trigger a requirement for quarantine on return: people should be able to make an informed choice as to whether or not they undertake their trip.
(It has to be said here that, given that England has the highest Covid-19 death rate in Europe, and one of the highest in the world, there should be some serious scientific work done on what exactly constitutes an infection threat from another country).
Second, the imposition of quarantine restrictions must be logical. For Spain, the ‘hotspots’ of increased infection were in the north-east – Aragon and to a lesser extent Catalonia. Aragon is not a major holiday destination, having absolutely no coastline. Dominic Cummings is reputed to be a fan of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and so he will know that “If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.” In order to protect public health, what was needed was a policy which ‘thinks like a virus’.
There are two things which makes it difficult for a virus to be transmitted: distance, and crossing water. Yet the quarantine rules applied to the Balearic Islands (350 miles from the main city of Aragon) and the Canary Isles (1260 miles distant); both places separated from the ‘hotspot’ by water. The quarantine rules did not, however, apply to Gibraltar (604 land miles away). Nor did they affect people returning from the south of France (the French border being a mere 200 miles from Aragon).
This makes no sense in terms of transmission of the virus. People returning from the islands have been pointlessly inconvenienced. Others, more likely to have picked up infections, are able to return freely. Quarantine is a considerable imposition on the individual, and the requirement for it needs to be clear if people are going to comply.
Third, the Treasury must have a clear financial plan for those who are in quarantine. This is particularly vital for those whose work does not enable them to work from home. Returnees need to know if they are to be furloughed, or put in receipt of a measly £95.85 Statutory Sick Pay, or cast into the dubious care of Universal Credit. As it is, those currently undergoing, or about to return to, quarantine have simply been left to sort things out with their employers on an individual basis. This leaves employees in a very vulnerable situation, and does not enable people to make well-informed decisions in future.
Fourth, there needs to be the machinery to implement quarantine. No government department or agency has issued figures of those returning, nor has there been any report of the action taken. This is probably because, from anecdotal evidence, there appears to have been no action. There are multiple reports on social media of people returning from Spain and finding no infrastructure at all at the airport, except perhaps a hastily scrawled notice informing people that they are obliged to self-isolate. Temperatures have not been taken. Those who have diligently completed a form during their flight have found not so much as a box to put it in. Apart from airline records, there has been no register kept of those who have returned, still less of the places they have visited. There is no simple means of contacting these travellers, nor have they been offered tests. For a British government which has been loudly trumpeting its desire to “control its borders” for over four years, the performance is lamentable.
Before this situation occurs again, as it surely will, it is imperative that these things happen:
- the Department of Health should determine and publish the criteria which will trigger implementation of quarantine rules in the future;
- the Treasury must be explicit with employees and employers as to what will be done to support those who are temporarily taken out of work because they are in quarantine;
- and the Home Office should work with airports and ports, to monitor and check on those who are returning from areas deemed to be at high risk.
Only with a clear plan and proper joined-up thinking can the government hope to retain or, rather, regain the trust and cooperation of citizens.