We can close our borders to people but not to goods, unless we are prepared to live with shortages – and worse. The Government continues to classify “international and domestic freight transport (including by air, ship, road and rail, including roll-on/roll-off transports)…as an essential activity in the context of its travel advice”.
Ministers could also seek to ensure that anyone who enters the UK has had a Covid test. But tests are not error-proof. And the Government conceded in January that some countries don’t have the infrastructure to deliver them. It was announced at the time that hauliers are exempt. So are arrivals from the Common Travel Area with Ireland.
Furthermore, the new system that Matt Hancock announced yesterday is for England only. Which reminds us that policing our borders is only effective for one part of the United Kingdom if it is also so for the other parts. In any event, it may be that a full border closure would be useless – if a new deadly home-grown variant cuts a swathe through the population instead of others from abroad.
You will see what we are up to: listing as many reasons as possible why a total border closure wouldn’t work – regardless of the further damage it would do to travel, tourism, the hospitality and airline industries, business and holidays abroad.
But we raise all those points and concerns only in order to dismiss them. It would be neither sensible policy-wise, not practicable policy-wise, for Ministers to say: “oh, well: since we can’t control our borders perfectly, we won’t bother to control them at all” – and roll the dice on dangerous new variants.
Ruling out total closure and no closure leaves the inevitable third option: partial closure, which Ministers have implemented in different ways at different times since last March. There are testing and quarantine requirements for all those entering England from outside the UK and Ireland. These have now been stepped up.
It is illegal for all those who arrive from one of 33 red-listed countries to enter (bar British and Irish Nationals, or third country nationals). It is illegal to exit for a holiday to any country at all. Twenty-eight thousand hotel rooms will be needed to accommodate an expected 1,425 daily arrivals. Only 4,600 have been found to date.
And there are new penalties: for seeking evading tests or quarantine, and “anyone who lies on a passenger locator form and tries to conceal that they have been in a country on the red list in the 10 days before arrival here will face a prison sentence of up to 10 years”, Matt Hancock told the Commons yesterday.
Some of the same objections that can be made to a total closure plan can also be made to this partial closure scheme. Again, there are exemptions for freight, fallible tests, problems with ensuring seamless arrangements with the rest of the UK (let alone Ireland) – and the possibility that perilous new variants will come from within England rather than abroad.
Travel, tourism, the hospitality and airline industries, business and holidays will likewise be hit (though the latter were always likely to be severely restricted anyway, given the red list – and the unwillingness that most would surely feel in flying out to sun themselves abroad…and fly back in to face a fortnight’s quarantine, or at least the threat of it.
There are also a mass of potential problems with the last. Perhaps 28,000 hotel room for those quarantined will be found; they will be seamlessly escorted to secure premises; none will mix with other guests; none will abscond – and all will pay up. We hope so. But we fear a thousand tabloid headlines.
One friend of ConHome texts: “you’ve seen the Ozzie story about the security guard spreading Covid having sex with the inmates”. We move on rapidly – to make the point that a dangerous new variant in a non red-list country may be missed by the authorities there, and the menace that is poses may not be picked up at once.
So, then: total border closure, no closure, partial closure – all are flawed. Which invites the question: “well, what would you do then?” What we would certainly not do is to impose a maximum sentence comparable to that awarded for making threats to kill for lying on a form. But in other respects we sympathise with the predicament that Ministers find themselves in.
They are seeking to balance public safety, commercial reality, our devolved settlement, imperfect tests – and virus and vaccine unknowns. However, it’s clearly better to stop foreign nationals who may pose a danger to public health from entering the UK at all, rather than seeking to confine them once they’ve arrived.
The least bad way forward to us looks like standing ready to extend that red list, and to keep out those who originate from, say, South Africa and Brazil, or have been to either recently – as Nick Boles suggested yesterday (unless they have residency rights here). We hope and believe that vaccines will catch up with the variants sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we’re all here because we’re here.