Alex Brummer: Profoundly stupid act of economic vandalism

ALEX BRUMMER: Decision to quarantine all incoming passengers for 14 days is a profoundly stupid act of economic vandalism

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Boris Johnson’s government has made many startling missteps as it has sought to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

Some have been understandable; this is a new virus and the havoc wreaked, unprecedented. Others have been the result of incompetence or complacency.

There is one ‘misstep’, however, that stands out as profoundly stupid. 

That‘s the decision to quarantine incoming passengers to our airports – foreign nationals and returning Britons alike – for 14 days, just as some normality starts to return to our lives.

A passenger wearing a face mask arrives at Heathrow airport, west London, last week. Travellers arriving in Britain will face 14 days in quarantine from next month to prevent a second coronavirus outbreak

Who will want to visit friends here, take a holiday or come to do business with such a draconian restriction in place?

Out of the 18.1million people who entered the country by air in the three months prior to the coronavirus lockdown, just 273 were formally quarantined.

Having failed spectacularly to act then, as the infection was spreading from the Chinese city of Wuhan worldwide, the authorities are playing catch up just as the long and painful lockdown is easing.

Where is the logic in that? It is an act of economic suicide that not only threatens our aviation, hospitality and tourism industries, but is a devastating blow to Britain’s place in the world as one of the great financial and commercial centres.

If this nation is effectively closed to international business, then the worst fears of those who opposed Brexit – that great swathes of the banking and services sector would be driven offshore – could actually be realised.

One only has to look at the dramatic steps forced on a previously thriving airline industry to understand the scarring to the economy which is taking place.

Flag carrier British Airways is implementing 12,000 job cuts, Ryanair is downsizing by 3,000 staff, and Easyjet announced yesterday that it will axe up to 4,500 posts.

Meanwhile, Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic is teetering on the edge of a precipice.

As demand for new aircraft plummets, one of Britain’s ‘industrial crown jewels’, aerospace engine maker Rolls-Royce is closing entire factories – resulting in around 8,000 redundancies.

From our island home, overseas travel is a fact of life for every section of the community.

So the sheer farce of having to self-isolate for 14 days after a short trip to Europe doesn’t bear thinking about (and that’s before other countries do as France has done and announced reciprocal measures).

Flag carrier British Airways is implementing 12,000 job cuts, Ryanair is downsizing by 3,000 staff, and Easyjet announced yesterday that it will axe up to 4,500 posts

My son Justin, who is working for a UK-based digital firm in Austin, Texas, has cancelled a trip home this August because he and his wife cannot risk the time and lost income involved in being quarantined for two weeks. The same applies to millions of others.

The disastrous loss of revenues for airlines, airports and airport retailers, such as travel specialists WH Smith, is just a microcosm of the tragedy awaiting the UK’s brilliant tourism industry.

No wonder that 78 key British players in the travel and tourism industry felt compelled to appeal directly to Home Secretary Priti Patel in a letter this week, urging her to think again about her ‘unworkable, ill-thought out’ quarantine plan.

And how out of touch was that snide Whitehall jobsworth to dismiss the letter as the whingeing of elitist London luxury hotels and upmarket holiday firms that wouldn’t much bother readers of the Daily Mail as they enjoy their morning cereal.

It’s bunkum and shows breathtaking ignorance.

Many of our readers are part of the UK tourism industry, which employs 3.8million people – from top London chefs to ticket sellers and guides at the nation’s monuments, from B&B businesses and canal boat operators to tea rooms, cafes and souvenir stand owners nationwide.

Moreover, the latest data from the UK’s Tourism Alliance and the Office for National Statistics shows the value of tourism stands at £145.9billion a year – amounting to 7.2 per cent of total national output.

It’s as if national decision-makers do not have a clue as to how wealth is created in Britain’s open and dynamic economy.

The prosperity of our nation relies heavily on the services industry – which makes up more than 70 per cent of the nation’s output – and is dominated by ‘people skills’.

That requires the UK’s vibrant army of hoteliers, tourist guides, consultants, lawyers, creatives, engineers, architects and construction experts, working across the globe, to be able to move freely in and out of the country.

I am fully aware that in the midst of a pandemic – when more than 37,000 lives have been lost – ministers cannot ignore the potential flow of infection from overseas.

One initial, sensible proposal for re-opening Britain to tourism was the idea of ‘safe’ air corridors between the UK and France and other European destinations with low transmission rates – but that was shot down almost as soon as it was mentioned.

But the best way of dealing with the risk would be to significantly beef up screening at points of departure and arrival.

Anyone who travels to the US is familiar with having to self-declare that they are not a drug trafficker. Travellers to Israel must self-certify that they are not carrying a weapon.

It would be a simple matter for travellers to and from the UK to self-certify themselves to be Covid-19 free or immune, with random checks, big fines and isolation for those who flouted the rules.

The sophisticated security devices made by Britain’s Smiths Industries, which already record many details of our lives when we leave or enter the country, could be programmed to assist screening.

When lockdown began on March 23, the vast amounts of government financial support – notably the furlough scheme – were put in place so that economic life could emerge from hibernation rapidly.

Shutting the doors on the UK’s wonderfully open economy with an illogical quarantine policy is an act of vandalism that goes beyond all comprehension.

 

 

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