While much of Europe begins reopening borders to encourage tourism, Britain has gone the other way, imposing a 14-day quarantine on international travellers that went into effect Monday.
The quarantine forbids visitors from going to workplaces, schools or public places for two weeks. Violators face fines of as much as £1,000 ($1,700), and immigration officials are expected to carry out spot checks. There are exemptions for truck drivers, health care professionals and seasonal agricultural workers.
The government has said the quarantine is essential to stopping a second wave of COVID-19, but the measure has been met with fierce pushback from the travel industry and questions about why it has come so late and whether it makes any sense.
“It will cause untold devastation, not just to the airlines but to British tourism,” Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said Monday. “We’re facing thousands of job losses because of a stupid, ineffective quarantine.” The airline plans to offer 1,000 daily flights to Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy starting in early July, although bookings have been running at half the typical pace for the summer.
Ryanair has joined easyJet PLC and British Airways owner International Airlines Group S.A. in launching legal proceedings against the government to lift the quarantine. The airlines and a group of more than 500 hotel operators and travel companies argue that the quarantine is too stringent, that the enforcement differs in Scotland and Wales and that the government is restricting travellers from countries such as Germany, where the rate of infection is far lower than in Britain.
Britain has had almost 300,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 40,000 people have died – the highest death toll in Europe. However, the numbers of infections and deaths have been rising at a much slower rate lately, and the government has been removing some lockdown measures put in place in March.
Government ministers have argued that restrictions on travellers will ensure that new cases aren’t brought into the country. "We all want to return to normal as quickly as possible. But this cannot be at the expense of lives,” Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a statement Monday. "The science is clear that if we limit the risk of new cases being brought in from abroad, we can help stop a devastating second wave.”
However, Kit Malthouse, the Minister of State for Crime, Policing and the Fire Service, said the quarantine will be largely voluntary and requires "enormous compliance from the population generally.”
There have also been reports that border officers won’t be able to verify the contact information provided by travellers, meaning they could be impossible to trace to ensure they are in quarantine.
Many in the travel sector say the quarantine is coming far too late – and just as other countries, including Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy and France, have begun reopening their borders to tourists. The concern is that the 14-day period of self-isolation will scare off travellers during the critical summer months. Britain is among the world’s top 10 travel destinations; last year 41 million people visited the country and spent a record £28.4-billion.
The quarantine “is one of the most unworkable policies ever and is already causing severe job losses,” said Paul Charles, who runs London-based travel consultancy the PC Agency and leads industry group Quash the Quarantine. The government has “instilled fear in the public beyond their mandate.”
The travel industry has already been hit hard by the pandemic. British Airways plans to axe almost a quarter of its 45,000 staff, while easyJet PLC is cutting 4,500 jobs and Ryanair is eliminating 3,000 positions. The deep cuts could force London’s Heathrow Airport to lay off 25,000 workers, roughly a third of its work force, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said.
Some of the government’s scientific advisers have also questioned the usefulness of quarantines. "I would say that countries that have imposed quarantine did so either very early or after the case rate in the country had gone down quite a bit,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, who is president of the Royal Society, Britain’s leading scientific academy, and a member of the government’s scientific advisory panel.
In an interview with the BBC Monday, Dr. Ramakrishnan added: “I should say, we’re still not quite at the stage where the case rate is down to well below a thousand and the number of deaths per day is in the tens. But this is of course not purely a scientific decision. One has to balance various considerations, and so I can’t really comment on the timing.”
The quarantine will be reviewed later this month, and Ms. Patel has indicated that Britain will seek to negotiate “air bridges” that would allow travellers to move between countries without having to go into quarantine.
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