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The UK’s coronavirus quarantine policy risks being the worst of both worlds

Restricting quarantine to a few high-risk countries won’t stop new variants entering the country and will still be costly and disruptive

Restricting quarantine to a few high-risk countries won’t stop new variants entering the country and will still be costly and disruptive, says Sarah Nickson

More than a week after reports that the government was investigating “Australian-style” hotel quarantine – and nearly a year since she reportedly advocated shutting borders – the home secretary has announced a watered-down English version. UK citizens and residents arriving from 33 coronavirus hotspots will – at some point soon – be forced into hotel quarantine for 10-day stints, while all others arriving from these places will be barred from entry altogether. This measure will be reinforced by a requirement for anyone wishing to depart the country to show they are travelling for a “valid reason”. For travellers arriving from elsewhere, the existing rules remain: 10 days’ self-isolation at home, perhaps with a phone call or a police visit to check compliance.

This new system of hotel quarantine is far more selective – and shorter – than in other countries with mandatory, government-enforced quarantine, where 14 days is the standard length and all (or nearly all) international arrivals are included.

Reports suggest the cabinet was divided between those pushing for a blanket approach and those concerned about the impact on aviation, tourism, and other sectors. But in splitting the difference between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, the government has settled on a policy that will inflict economic and human costs, but fail to reap the rewards enjoyed by those countries that have used quarantine to restore something resembling a normal life.

Starting with a small number of high-risk countries is sensible if used as pilot scheme

Quarantine is a complex logistical operation: the government must source appropriate hotel rooms with good air ventilation, hire staff who understand infection control to guard and care for travellers, and develop procedures for dealing with people with complex physical and mental health needs.

The Australian states set up their respective schemes with 72 hours’ notice and applied them to the entire world. The rush to act was later pinpointed as one of the key reasons for Melbourne’s bungled quarantine operation, which led to a second wave in that city (and most of the country’s 909 Covid-19 deaths). Starting with a small number of countries will allow the government to work out how best to run it before rolling it out at scale.

But stopping here still leaves the UK at risk from new variants

The government has said it wants to keep new, dangerous variants, that might spread faster, be more fatal or evade the protection of vaccines, from entering the country. Therefore, it is targeting quarantine at the places where these variants are known to exist. But to achieve this goal, the government will need other countries to detect and alert them to new strains as soon as they emerge. While the UK is a leader on this front, few other countries share this capability. Combined with the government’s tendency to wait for overwhelming evidence before acting, this leaves a dangerous window for new variants to take hold before the government decides to extend quarantine requirements.

Its new policy also overlooks the risk posed by overseas arrivals carrying existing variants, coming from countries where only self-isolation is required. These people would contribute to ongoing circulation of the virus within the UK – and the risk of another homegrown variant emerging, as well as undermining the gains made from the current national lockdown.

The new quarantine policy still carries costs for individuals, business and the government

Even with this limited quarantine policy, the aviation and tourism sectors will still take a hit, with people only being allowed out of the country for essential reasons. Any business relying on exports or imports to or from countries on the travel ban list will also encounter difficulties as air routes dry up, while people will be cut off from family and work opportunities. Any Brits trying to get home from affected countries will need to rely on third countries continuing to allow incoming flights the UK is unwilling to receive. The UK might find itself in a similar position to Australia, with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office playing travel agent and organising repatriation flights from coronavirus hotspots.

A selective approach is also likely to be an unpredictable one: within hours of the home secretary’s announcement, three new countries – including the key aviation hubs of the United Arab Emirates – were added to the list. This will make it hard for businesses and individuals to plan their travel with any certainty. It also fails to resolve the difficult question of an exit strategy: when to remove travel bans, once imposed.

The quarantine decision is true to form

The hotel quarantine policy fits a pattern of decision making apparent throughout this crisis: shutting the gate long after the horse has bolted, an assumption that data and scientific knowledge can pinpoint the perfect time to act, and a tendency to settle on a half-way house between ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ that ends up protecting neither health nor the economy. If the government does want to keep new variants out of the UK, it needs to do quarantine properly with a more comprehensive policy – sooner rather than later.

In a week where the UK reached the tragic milestone of 100,000 lives lost to Covid-19, the prime minister said now was not the right time to “learn the lessons of what has happened”. His government’s decision on hotel quarantine and borders certainly shows a commitment to that stance.

Johnson government
Institute for Government

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