DAVID DAVIS: Our clumsy quarantine system is destroying livelihoods and making the UK a laughing stock… and it’s based on science as reliable as a weathervane in a whirlwind
The United Kingdom is nothing if not a trading nation. For centuries our island status has made us a leader in world commerce, and that continues to this day.
Last year alone, foreign nationals made almost nine million business trips here, a staggering total. Those visits generated jobs, investment and prosperity for our country – prosperity that will be doubly important after Brexit.
By the same token, millions of British businessmen and women have grown used to travelling the world in pursuit of new opportunities, while millions more flights are taken for holidays and leisure.
Heathrow has already got its testing stations in place and is willing to organise staff and even home-tests for its travellers. All this could be put in place almost immediately – if only the Government would change its mind
Ever since Freddie Laker pioneered no-frills air travel in the 1970s, this country has been at the heart of the low-cost travel industry. Britons made more than 58 million overseas holiday trips last year, spending some £43 billion in the process.
All of this has been shattered by the Government’s clumsy quarantine policy.
Such crude measures might have been understandable had they been introduced at the very start of the crisis, before we’d imported Covid-19 infections in large numbers from France, Spain and Italy.
And to be fair, some countries have imposed such measures, limiting the number of foreign visitors, with great success.
But we introduced the policy as late as June, many months into the crisis, locking the stable door long after the horse had bolted.
It was obvious even then that blanket quarantines would be the worst of all worlds.
The way the policy has been implemented – chopping and changing which countries are in or out on a weekly basis – has maximised the economic uncertainty and damage. If it continues, the already huge job losses in the travel sector will increase still further, while airlines and travel companies will go bankrupt. An empty looking Heathrow Airport is seen above
Many of us feared that forcing people to isolate themselves at home after returning from holiday would do maximum economic damage but give minimum protection against infection. Badly needed holidays would be wrecked.
But for factory workers, shop assistants and garage mechanics who cannot comfortably work from home, it would also cost them income and possibly even their jobs.
And so it has proved.
The way the policy has been implemented – chopping and changing which countries are in or out on a weekly basis – has maximised the economic uncertainty and damage.
If it continues, the already huge job losses in the travel sector will increase still further, while airlines and travel companies will go bankrupt.
The damage will not stop there.
Companies that trade internationally and which rely on customers and salesmen crossing our borders will face almost incredible difficulty. And this will cripple the international trade which is so important to us when the Brexit process is completed later this year and we stand on our own two feet.
We are risking self-strangulation of our economy and we have become a laughing stock to our competitors.
How, then, did we get into this ridiculous position? Ministers tell us that they base their policy ‘on the science’. They have my sympathy.
The scientific advice during this crisis has been about as reliable as a weathervane in a whirlwind, changing from moment to moment, and almost never right.
But I suspect the real reason behind the chaos and ensuing damage might be rather less respectable.
When the policy was first introduced in June, it was reported in some knowledgeable quarters that it was actually being driven by the opinions of focus groups and by polling data gathered by Dominic Cummings at No 10.
I hope this is not true. Because if it were, it would be a disgrace given the savage economic consequences arising from it now. So what is the alternative?
What should we have done instead? Perhaps more importantly, what should we do now? The answer is straightforward.
At least 30 other countries, all with better records than the UK at controlling the virus, have pursued an alternative and much more rational policy.
They have chosen to test incoming travellers from countries with high infection rates, either at the airport, or even in some cases before travel.
Look at the countries around the world that have done this.
Take Austria, for example, where the rules are that people either supply a negative test taken 72 hours before entering the country, or have one done at the airport.
Results are available in three to six hours and – provided the result is negative – travellers avoid the mandatory 14-day quarantine.
At Vienna airport, on-site testing was available as early as May 3. That was a full month before our Government instituted its own ham-fisted quarantines.
Since then, a host of countries have enacted similar policies.
Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Malta, Turkey and Japan all have systems in place offering tests at airports.
A greater number of others, including Germany and France, allow passengers to avoid full quarantine if they can provide a negative coronavirus test result taken in the days before they travel.
Remember, these systems work!
Which brings us back to the ‘scientific data’ that underpins the UK policy.
A number of Ministers have claimed that testing on arrival at airports would only pick up seven per cent of Covid-19 cases. Boris Johnson repeated this claim on Friday.
In the measured words of Thorolfur Gudnason, the chief epidemiologist of Iceland, this is incorrect. And since Iceland has successfully used a border-testing policy since June, he knows what he’s talking about.
A number of Ministers have claimed that testing on arrival at airports would only pick up seven per cent of Covid-19 cases. A traveller is pictured above at Heathrow Airport
The trouble is that the UK advice is based on modelling estimates made in the early stages of the crisis when little was understood about the disease. The so-called scientific data is now out of date.
But even if this ‘advice’ had been correct, our Government’s policy is singularly unimaginative.
A safety-first approach could have introduced a test at airports and a follow-up carried out at home four or five days later.
If both tests showed negative, the quarantine period could have been limited to five days, a much more manageable option for people with manual or public-facing jobs.
What is more, the airlines and airports industry have volunteered to organise just such an arrangement.
Heathrow has already got its testing stations in place and is willing to organise staff and even home-tests for its travellers. All this could be put in place almost immediately – if only the Government would change its mind.
Indeed, every day that passes the technology gets better, faster and more capable. Even in April, testing technology gave a result within 90 minutes to two hours, rather than the 24-hour time lag that the Government now nominally offers (that is when you can actually get a Government test).
The Japanese have cut down the waiting time for airport test results to under an hour, and even this is slow compared to the latest tests.
The American company Cepheid had a proven accurate test that was cleared for use by the American Food and Drug Administration in March. It produced results in 30 to 45 minutes.
Last week, another US firm, Abbott Laboratories, announced it had secured emergency use approval for a new test it has developed. It works like a pregnancy test. Users take a nasal swab, pop the swab back into the test card and within 15 minutes a result is given – one line shows a negative result, two lines positive.
These technological advances make it easier and easier to have a rational testing system at national borders – and harder and harder to understand why our Government does not change course.
If Public Health England (PHE) is advising against this, perhaps it’s time to recognise that this organisation has been wrong countless times since the start of this crisis.
The Health Secretary has quite rightly replaced PHE because of its incompetence. Perhaps it is now time he replaced its advice with something a little more balanced, more practical and, frankly, more scientific.
This policy is not saving lives, but it is destroying jobs and disrupting livelihoods. It is long past time for change.
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