Britain has always boasted of the merits of its open economy. Global Britain was the catchphrase of those who campaigned for the UK’s departure from the EU and who saw the country as a champion of free trade once freed from the strictures of Brussels. So when it came to managing the pandemic, the government’s attitude to border controls was always a potential Achilles heel. Last spring, as successive governments began to introduce travel restrictions, such as routine testing or quarantining, Britain’s borders remained stubbornly open. The failure to act was baffling and has proven foolish in hindsight. Ministers have been playing catch-up ever since.
The rapid spread of new variants of coronavirus has now galvanised ministers to act. Under a scheme due to take effect next week, people coming into the UK will have to take Covid-19 tests soon after entry for the first time. All arrivals will have to be tested on the second and eighth days after arrival, in addition to producing a negative test result before departure. Other changes include a 10-day government-mandated quarantine for any travellers to England from a “red” list of 33 countries. Foreigners are already banned from coming into the UK from those countries. British residents, however, will be allowed to return home from them if they take part in the supervised hotel quarantine. Anyone refusing to go to a quarantine-designated hotel faces fines of up to £10,000. In addition, anyone who tries to conceal they were in a country on the red list in the 10 days before arrival in the UK faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
As a tightening of the current regime — under which most people arriving must merely self-isolate in a private home without any post-flight tests — the changes are welcome. The government’s light-touch quarantine system has proven too easy to undermine. Although the police were able to levy fines for breaking quarantine requirements, the system has largely relied on the willingness of travellers to register their contact details and to follow the rules unmonitored. The strategy of quarantine hotels has already proven successful in other countries including Singapore and New Zealand. Similarly, the introduction of double-testing is scientifically sound. Modelling for Public Health England last June already suggested that “double-testing”, with a second check taken after eight or even five days, would capture the great majority of pre-arrival infections.
However draconian the threatened prison sentences or fines, implementation and policing will be critical if the rules are to have any success. The 10-year prison term, while eye-catching, is perhaps more a tacit admission of the systemic weakness in any regime. Nor does it bode well that, with just days to go before the quarantine system comes into force, the government has struck deals with only 16 hotels to provide just 4,600 rooms — a fraction of the estimated 28,000 that will be needed over the first month of the scheme. Some hotel operators have declined to sign up given the government’s refusal to block-book entire venues. While public health must come first, ministers cannot ignore the impact on the travel industry from the new approach. A clear exit strategy is vital.
Clear and consistent rules, combined with efficient monitoring, are measures that should have been put in place months ago. But it is to be welcomed that the government is finally getting to grips with Britain’s borders. The success of the rollout of the vaccine programme is likely to have emboldened ministers to act. The hope must be that the new regime heralds the start of more effective government.