When news of the vaccine’s effectiveness broke late last year, we all rejoiced. Here, at last, was a clear route away from the Government’s fear-driven, wholly unprecedented, and socially and economically ruinous policy of lockdown.
Our freedoms, stolen in a desperate bid to protect the old and vulnerable, would be returned. No longer would we be told who we can see and where we can go.
Millions of us celebrated by snapping up a holiday. Tour operators reported a surge in bookings for destinations both familiar and far-flung. After all, what better way is there to escape the doldrums, and let your hair down?
Now, it appears that the vaccine, far from unlocking our horizons, will actually tether us tighter to our shores. What was supposed to make things better, is – for travellers at least – actually being used to make things worse. To protect us against “unidentified new variants”, the Government is on the verge of announcing strict new border controls, with a mandatory hotel quarantine for all overseas arrivals (including returning holidaymakers) looking increasingly likely.
Make no mistake – such a drastic step could consign foreign holidays to the history books. After all, if the rationale is to save us from Covid variants we haven’t even discovered yet, logic dictates that it must remain in place forever. The virus, according to all sensible scientists, is endemic – it will be with us for good. Furthermore, viruses never stop mutating. So when, precisely, can such a policy be reversed?
A mandatory hotel quarantine, for the vast majority of us, amounts to a ban on holidays. A small number of wealthy people, with flexible jobs and lifestyles, may be willing to finish their foreign break with a costly stay in a Heathrow Airport hotel (and they will be costly; returning Australians, for their hotel quarantine, must pay the equivalent of around £1,700 per person). But the rest of us will be simply unable to travel beyond our shores.
Perhaps you do not care for holidays. Maybe, so long as you can see your family and friends, and visit the pub on a Friday night, you’ll be content. But for millions of people they are what makes life worth living. They are the tantalising reward that softens the blow of an unappealing job or the grim British winter. To abolish them will be colossally damaging to the mental health of millions.
Perhaps you’ve already explored the world, and feel untroubled by the loss of foreign trips. But is it fair that your wonderful travel memories – backpacking adventures, boozy teenage breaks, romantic holidays with a new partner – will be unavailable to your children?
For those with family overseas, the restrictions will be devastating. Regular reunions will be reduced to, at best, occasional and hugely expensive visits. Thousands of relationships will be severed entirely.
The economic impact would be colossal. According to Visit Britain, we will have a tourism industry worth over £257 billion by 2025 – just under 10% of UK GDP and supporting almost 3.8 million jobs. Not if we quarantine all overseas arrivals we won’t. Hotels across the country, bereft of foreign guests, will be forced to close. Central London will be decimated.
Beyond our shores, the consequences will be even more wretched. Free-spending UK globetrotters prop up the economies of whole Caribbean nations. They offer a livelihood to millions of people in the developing world. Earlier this year I was told that entire communities in Africa are “on their knees” due to the loss of tourism. Telegraph Travel spoke to award-winning tour guides in South America who had been reduced to driving an Uber, or selling doughnuts on the street.
A border closure might have made sense a year ago, when Covid was first crossing the globe, but to be considering such a drastic step at this stage, when the virus has already reached every corner of our country, is nonsensical, and not supported by any international health authority or reasonable expert.
Short-term actions, while the vaccine is given to the most vulnerable, would be forgivable – I would grudgingly accept strict rules on travel until March or April. Perhaps, as some seem to think, the Government intends to lift restrictions, along with other lockdown rules, in the summer. Don’t be so sure. By using the threat of unspecified new variants, it is painting itself into a corner. The PM’s own reasoning, as I’ve said, suggests that any measures made now must remain until Covid is eradicated around the world (which is most certainly not going to happen). If this is not the plan, then a clear exit strategy must be outlined.
Living with Covid, which we must learn to do, means living with the chance of a vaccine-dodging new variant. We cannot keep hiding under the bed, ruining everyone’s quality of life, over a disease which, lest we forget, kills just 0.3% of those it infects and is harmless to the vast majority of us. A sense of proportion, apparently abandoned last year, needs to be reestablished.
The vaccine was supposed to herald an end to the madness, and some countries are using it as a reason to open up. The Seychelles, for example, is now welcoming all vaccinated travellers. Furthermore, once its own population has been inoculated, it will open its doors to everyone. It’s a positive policy that ought to be a blueprint for others. If an extra safety net is desired, countries could persist with testing overseas arrivals.
But using our vaccine victory as a reason to double down on our cautiousness, and cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, would amount to the most damaging overreaction of the whole saga.