Our fear-driven approach to travel is killing jobs and destroying our mental wellbeing

From 5pm tomorrow, Britons could conceivably have just one restriction-free holiday option left: Gibraltar. 

I’m not saying this exotic version of England, with its red phone boxes and Barbary macaques, isn’t a fine place to while away a few days, but at just 2.6 square miles, there’s hardly room to fit all of the pandemic-weary Britons itching for an autumn escape. 

Nevertheless, if Italy, Greece, Sweden and Germany – which have all crossed (or, in the case of Germany, are about to cross) the UK’s arbitrary threshold of 20 cases per 100,000 residents – are relegated to the quarantine naughty step this week, Gibraltar will be our last holiday option that doesn’t involve a costly private test or some form of self-isolation. 

How did it come to this? As ever, it isn’t coronavirus that’s to blame for our dismal situation but our government’s inept and fear-driven response to it. 

Take that seven-day threshold of 20 cases per 100,000. It was adopted (ie. pulled from a hat) during the heady days of summer, when the UK’s own infection rate was in single figures.

We’ve now reached the dizzy heights of 115 – yet the threshold still seems to be 20. Last week, for example, Poland was snubbed after its rate reached just 24.4. 

If the purpose of a quarantine is to reduce the risk of Covid cases arriving from overseas, then what is the point of banishing countries where the rate is more than four times lower than our own?

Surely we’re far more likely to catch this catastrophic virus (survival rate: 99.9 percent), on British soil – using public transport, going to the office, visiting a crowded supermarket at 10pm to stock up on booze because the pubs have all closed – than we are in a foreign country with far fewer Covid sufferers. My holidays are usually spent enjoying the outdoors or slumped beside a hotel pool, not clubbing or visiting a care home. Wouldn’t a week overseas be the less risky option?

If we must persist with this foolish quarantine policy, the only logical threshold would be whatever the UK’s case rate is that week – not some arbitrary figure that seemed appropriate back in July. Such a policy would keep the likes of Italy and Greece on the menu (assuming they are happy to go on welcoming Britons) and significantly bolster our list of options. Croatia (38 per 100,000) would be back, as would mainland Portugal (57). We’d be able to visit Malta (66.4), Austria (61.8), Switzerland (38.6), Slovenia (62.2) and Slovakia (76.2) too.  

Even better would be to ditch the policy entirely in favour of testing. Arrivals from “high-risk” countries (again, that should mean places with a higher infection rate than our own – such as Israel and Argentina, but not Italy and Austria) could take a rapid test (or preferably two to mitigate the problem of false positives) when they arrive at a British airport. Return a negative result and you can skip quarantine. Yet somehow our government, despite being obsessed with testing (Boris even wants to squander £100bn – well over half the annual NHS budget – on his loopy Operation Moonshot), still hasn’t got airport checks up and running. 

What we’ve had instead is endless dithering. We were promised that tests for international arrivals would finally be given the green light this week. The travel industry rejoiced. Yet now it seems that any concrete changes have been postponed until November at the earliest and all we’ll get is the launch of a blasted “taskforce” to examine the options that might reinvigorate overseas travel. For heaven’s sake. We’ve had seven months to examine the options – and for action – what more is there to discuss?

Even if testing is approved, it seems certain that the most tentative (and therefore least effective, though no less costly) option will find favour. This means, perhaps, that arrivals from high-risk countries will have to take a test on the eighth day of their quarantine, after which (unless the result is positive) the self-isolation would end. But cutting the quarantine period to eight days (or perhaps even longer if we must wait for the results) won’t make the slightest difference to the vast majority of people. If you can’t (or won’t) quarantine for 14 days, you almost certainly can’t for eight, so who would the change actually benefit? 

A better and braver solution would be the one adopted (months ago) by Germany and Italy. Major airports in both countries offer tests to “high-risk” arrivals, and anyone who returns a negative result is free to get on with their lives: no self-isolation required. Clearly it’s not having a significant impact on their case rates. 

Indeed, travel does not seem to be a particularly risky activity at all. According to Public Health England data, transmissions occur largely in households, care homes, workplaces, schools and universities – not airports or trains (or, indeed restaurants and bars). So why are we treating holidays with such caution?

Perhaps you think travel is not important. That it should be at the back of the queue when it comes to returning things to normal. I would counter that by saying that millions of Britons, including myself, spend much of their lives looking forward to their next dose of sunshine. Holidays are what make work bearable and life worth living. Effectively banning them, as the Government is doing, is taking a terrible toll on our collective mental health.

Furthermore, unless we ditch our safety first approach to travel, the price to pay in terms of lost livelihoods will be colossal. Millions of your fellow citizens pay the rent, and put food on the table, thanks to tourism. Try telling them that holidays don’t matter. 

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