Matt Hancock has announced further details on the government’s hotel quarantine scheme: from Monday, passengers travelling from ‘red list’ countries will be required to enter hotel quarantine at a cost of £1,750 per person.
The government says it is setting up one of the toughest border policies in the world. From the vantage point of an Australian working in UK public policy, it is difficult to take these claims seriously. East Asian countries, along with Australia and New Zealand, set up hotel quarantine in March and April last year. These have been applied to all, or nearly all, overseas arrivals. A year later, the UK is set to end up with only a partial quarantine system.
It is difficult to see how this system will keep new variants out of the UK entirely. As SAGE, the government’s group of scientific advisers, has reportedly told the government, there would be a time lag between a new variant arising and the government and its scientists detecting it, deciding it presents a threat to vaccine efforts and shutting down travel from the relevant country.
But even assuming the government’s goal is to reduce rather than stop the inflow of dangerous variants, Hancock’s announcement did little to address the many potential pitfalls in the government’s approach.
As a new Institute for Government paper sets out, the problem is no longer the delay in introducing the policy – it is the fact that the government’s proposed policy is full of gaps, some of which result from its decision to opt for a selective quarantine system than a full one. If the government cannot plug them, then its policy is likely to prove a costly failure – and end up being little more than expensive window dressing.
First among them is the difficulty sorting travellers who need to enter hotel quarantine from those who do not. Travellers from banned countries will arrive in the UK via third countries. How will the border officials be able to tell exactly which passengers arriving on a flight from, say, Amsterdam, started their journey in Dubai (on the red list) and which in the Netherlands?
Unless it has extensive information sharing arrangements already in place, the government will most likely have to rely on passenger honesty. A ten-day sentence in an airport hotel – at the sum of £1,750 – gives passengers plenty of incentive to be less than forthcoming, even if the government does threaten prison for providing false information.
Another gap is the divergence on hotel quarantine policy between the nations of the UK and Ireland. Already, passengers are reportedly taking advantage of the common travel area – now dubbed the ‘Dublin dodge’ – to avoid home quarantine in the UK. And it is difficult to see how Scotland can enforce its planned blanket hotel quarantine while England does not, allowing Scots to fly into the latter and travel the final leg home by land.
Then the government must also tackle the numerous challenges involved in setting up any kind of hotel quarantine system: sourcing enough well-ventilated hotel rooms, staffing them with people who understand infection control, and looking after vulnerable people who might have fragile mental or physical health. This may well involve outsourcing, but the UK’s record in this pandemic – such as on contact tracing and PPE – gives cause for concern, with accusations of cronyism, wasted public funds and neglect of specialist expertise.
The government can look to Australia to see that poor contracting can defeat the purpose of hotel quarantine: in Melbourne, the virus leapt from travellers to poorly trained private security guards. This sparked Melbourne’s second wave, most of Australia’s coronavirus deaths and a three-month lockdown.
There will be further challenges ahead, not least for the tourism sector and for international trade. With 40,000 Australians currently stranded overseas because of a lack of supply of quarantine places, there is also a human cost to the policy which will place ministers under pressure as long as the policy remains. And there will be little point in hotel quarantine if the government does not suppress the virus at home, and thus the potential for homegrown variants.
The government says it is taking a tough line on borders.
But what it is about to deliver is characteristic of much of its pandemic response: an uneasy compromise between ministers who prioritise health outcomes and others concerned about the impact on the economy, but which risks achieving the objectives of neither.
Ultimately, the government must decide whether it actually wants to keep variants of concern out of the UK or just give the impression it is trying to do so.
Sarah Nickson is a researcher for the Institute for Government.
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