In September, I was among those lucky enough – or maybe foolish enough – to squeeze in a late summer getaway. After months hunched over a laptop in my living room, a couple of weeks drinking wine and relaxing on the beach would’ve appealed even if it meant wading through an Ebola-infested swamp to get there.
Of course I worried about the prospect of succumbing to a deadly virus or, even worse, passing it on to someone else. But the number of cases was low, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme had been hailed as a dramatic success, and the rigid measures we’d put in place convinced me, and plane-loads of travelers, that we could do our bit and do our holiday at the same time.
Just before landing back in the country, I had a quick search to see what the entry requirements were. Hidden away, on a very dry part of the government’s website, was the Passenger Locator Form -the lynchpin of Britain’s Test and Trace strategy. Nobody had ever mentioned it before. I punched in my details and downloaded a QR code.
If I hadn’t bothered, I’d have been no worse off. It was never inspected and, despite the digital readers at passport control, there was no need to scan the form. Unsurprisingly, it was never followed up on and while I lived off takeaways and tinned goods for two weeks on my return, it’s hard to imagine everyone else did the same.
And could they even have located me if they’d tried? Seven months on from the start of the pandemic that shut down our offices, closed our cafes and confined us to our homes, there wasn’t so much as a leaflet on the requirement for a fortnight in quarantine – let alone a translation to make it clear to international visitors. As a result, there were as many interpretations of the rules as there were people taking minibreaks. Many stuck rigidly to the rules, others got tests and went about their business. Some, by all accounts, disregarded them entirely.
It’s hard to say that all the blame for non-compliance lies with the government. These were new and trying times, where resources were stretched and there were no easy answers. And yes, if you are going to set off on a plane in the middle of a pandemic for a jolly on the Mediterranean coast, you should have the wherewithal to find out for yourself what is required on your return. But surely printing a leaflet out for the arrivals terminal wouldn’t have been beyond our capabilities as a nation? Especially given the potential cost of misunderstandings.
With that in mind, it is difficult to give much credit to the most recent wave of calls for the border to be closed entirely. Without having tried even the most basic of measures to prevent the virus being imported from overseas first, proponents of the plan sound distinctly like the parents of Ned Flanders in The Simpsons, who declare “we’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas!”
The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, won some glowing headlines when she revealed she’d pushed to shut off entry to Britain as long ago as March. Were it not for those higher up the chain, she claimed, new and more infectious variants would never have appeared on our shores. The fact she’d probably wanted to close the borders long before hearing of the existence of COVID-19 went largely unsaid.
However flashy the policy might have been, it is hard to see how it absolves Patel of the failure to get the most basic elements of border control right. Where was the leaflet at Heathrow? Where was the snooper squad of Test and Trace workers? Why did nobody check to see if travelers had even heard about the rules? Surely this would have been a better place to start than pulling up the drawbridge?
For its part, however, Downing Street doesn’t yet seem to be out of ideas. Establishing “quarantine hotels” for those arriving from high-risk destinations is such an obviously good idea that it is remarkable it has taken nine months or so for us to copy it from countries like Australia, Georgia and South Africa. People will undoubtedly be asking themselves whether this was a case of waiting for the right moment to introduce a new measure, or another case of Britain only following international examples of best practice after doing nothing hasn’t worked.
Similarly, the response to Whitehall’s new policy of requiring those arriving in the country to have a negative test before getting on the plane was greeted by an almost universal chorus of people saying it was about time. The rule change costs the government nothing, and can undoubtedly save lives, as countries which imposed it many months ago can attest.
There are those who say the nation should now make up for lost time, go one step further, and ban as much incoming air traffic as possible to avoid losing the incremental gains made against the third wave of the pandemic. The discovery of a series of new variants, some potentially more dangerous than others, is undoubtedly a cause for concern, particularly if they might be more resistant to the vaccines the NHS is working so hard to deploy.
Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, took to Twitter on Wednesday to say that having “vaccines and open borders is like having heating and open windows.” It is unclear, though, how long that could be held to be true. Although no new variant has been shown to be a significant threat to vaccine-acquired immunity, it is likely only a matter of time until one emerges. So must Britain keep its skies closed forever, lest it compromise that? As with many measures put forward over the course of the pandemic, this one seems to have no real exit strategy.
And the cost of doing so is astonishingly high. Closing the newly-global, buccaneering, international Britain to the world doesn’t just create a worrying impression, it comes with real economic consequences as well. Thousands of businesses depend on overseas experts, scientists and technicians moving freely through the border, in industries from finance to academia. Airlines, too, have had a torrid time over the past year and many are still operating at a loss to keep people moving. To interrupt that again without a colossal package of monetary support would likely finish off many carriers, driving up the price of air travel in the future.
No part of Britain’s strategy to contain coronavirus should be left to chance, but while closing the frontiers might play well as a “common sense” move, in reality it is the nuclear option. And it rarely makes sense to press the button when you’ve only just started to get the basics right.