During the Brexit debate Boris Johnson and his senior allies were often accused by Remainers of being Little Englanders who wanted to “pull up the drawbridge against the world”.
The coronavirus pandemic has completely disproved that claim, with the Prime Minister being notably reluctant to impose quarantine and testing measures on overseas arrivals precisely because he prioritises the UK’s reputation as a country open to the rest of the world.
But these are extraordinary times and it would clearly be outrageous to ask the British people to continue to make great sacrifices to get on top of Covid while at the same time inviting dangerous new strains of the disease in via international arrivals halls.
So there is an overwhelming case for insisting that for now anyone coming into the country from somewhere at high risk of harbouring new variants undergoes the most rigorous isolation and testing before being permitted to move around in the community.
A regime involving strict quarantine at hotels for those arriving from South Africa, South America and Portugal (because of its close cultural links with Brazil) is the least ministers should be imposing if they wish to look the British people in the eye and tell them to keep following the rules.
There is not really much point in lobby groups for the airline or holiday industries complaining about it either. Yes, we know it will cause further damage to their businesses and that is to be regretted. But the danger of reseeding Britain with a new Covid variant that could prove resistant to the vaccines we have been rolling out so successfully doesn’t bear contemplation. No wonder the latest YouGov poll shows 87 per cent public support for a hotel quarantine system.
But there is still much to decide about the appropriate scope of that system. There are pressures coming from some quarters for new controls that would insist on anyone arriving from anywhere on the globe to be locked up in hotels close to airports for ten days at a cost to them of £1,500.
That really would turn the UK, albeit temporarily, into a country with a North Korean-style attitude to visitors. And it would also seem unnecessary given that many countries have similar or lower Covid prevalence than we do.
What would be the point, for instance, of shutting away arrivals from almost Covid-free New Zealand and Australia? And remember, these would be people who had already passed a mandatory Covid test prior to departure. Given that there are said to be 10,000 hotel rooms in the vicinity of Heathrow, but even now 8,000 daily arrivals at the airport, the practicality of such a blanket approach must also be questioned.
A more proportionate and better way ahead would surely be to reserve the hotel quarantine system for those coming in from high-risk countries and anyone without a permanent UK residence at which to isolate.
Meanwhile, arrivals from lower risk countries who did have a permanent British address could be allowed to quarantine at it with the proviso of accepting a regime of random daily inspections and a temporary location tracker on their mobile phones to ensure they were following the programme – as well as severe punishment for breaches. There are many versions of such a regime in operation in other countries, including a “Home Quarantine Phone App” in Poland which has been notably effective at enforcing self-isolation requirements.
In the large majority of cases, this approach would mean treating UK nationals de facto more leniently than foreign nationals who would be much less likely to have a permanent British address and therefore much more likely to have to undergo hotel quarantine. But in the circumstances that would hardly be unreasonable.
Once Britain has completed its vaccination programme for all risk groups, down to the over-50s, the scope of the system could be further reduced.
The Prime Minister has certainly proved he is no natural raiser of drawbridges by dragging his feet on controls at ports and airports – much to the frustration of the Home Secretary, among others.
But we have reached a juncture where he would do well to reflect upon Shakespeare’s depiction of our country as a “precious stone set in the silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands”.
That inherent advantage of living on an island must now judiciously be brought into play.