Having been treated to Boris Johnson’s impersonation of Vicky Pollard throughout the pandemic (whether it’s lifting lockdown, wearing masks or going back to work, the answer is always “yeah but no but yeah but...”), Grant Shapps is now offering regular performances of another classic Little Britain sketch: “computer says no”.
Last night, for the fourth consecutive week, a clutch of countries were struck from the UK’s dwindling list of quarantine-free travel destinations. The move – announced on Twitter, because apparently that’s the best place to declare policy changes that will ruin hard-earned holidays and further cripple the economy – means anyone currently in Switzerland, the Czech Republic or Jamaica has less than 24 hours (35 when the tweet was published) to dash back to Britain, or face two weeks of house arrest. What a way to run a country.
Data shows we need to remove the Czech Republic, Jamaica and Switzerland from our list of #Coronavirus Travel Corridors to keep infection rates DOWN. If you arrive in the UK after 0400 Saturday from these destinations, you will need to self-isolate for 14 days.— Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) August 27, 2020
The lack of notice is ludicrous – after all, we were given the best part of a fortnight to get to grips with the prospect of wearing masks in shops – but even more alarming is the utterly narrow-minded way the Government is choosing which countries to thrust onto the quarantine naughty step.
The Department of Health claims to use a whole raft of factors when making these decisions. I’ve listed them below.
- An estimate of the proportion of the population that is currently infectious in each country
- Virus incidence rates and rates of change
- Trends in incidence, deaths and hospitalisations
- Imported infections identified through UK contact tracing
- Transmission status and international epidemic intelligence
- Information on a country’s testing capacity, testing regime and test positivity rate
- An assessment of the quality of the data available and public health systems
- Extent and effectiveness of measures being deployed by a country
- Volume of passengers coming into the UK from that country
- Population size of the country
It’s all hogwash. The only factor, it would seem, is the seven-day case rate per 100,000. If it reaches 20, the country is removed. No ifs, no buts. Computer says no.
Take Austria, for example. A week ago it was ditched, along with Croatia and Trinidad and Tobago, just hours after the latest European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control data revealed that its case rate had reached exactly 20.
Never mind that Austria, just like every other country in Europe, has been testing more people than ever in recent weeks (and picking up scores of asymptomatic cases). Never mind that Austria has seen just 733 deaths throughout the whole pandemic – and just three in the last seven days. Never mind that mask rules in Austria are stricter than in Britain (not that they do much good – just look at Spain – but the Government says they matter). Never mind that its public health system is as reliable as any, nor that it is visited by a relatively small number of us for holidays that usually involve hiking in the clear air of the Alps.
Sorry Austria, you’ve reached 20. Computer says no. (That infection rate has since risen to 20.6; hardly suggestive of a country overwhelmed.)
Data shows we need to remove Croatia, Austria and Trinidad & Tobago from our list of #coronavirus Travel Corridors to keep infection rates DOWN. If you arrive in the UK after 0400 Saturday from these destinations, you will need to self-isolate for 14 days.— Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) August 20, 2020
Switzerland, binned yesterday, offers an almost identical case study. A small number of us go there in summer to enjoy the great outdoors – not to cavort in crowded nightclubs – and it has seen a grand total of five Covid-related deaths in the last week. Its healthcare systems are the envy of the world. As for “extent and effectiveness of measures being deployed by a country”, another alleged Department of Health factor, Sally Peck, a Lausanne resident, told me: “People here are calmly following public health protocols, which are clearly advertised. People in Switzerland follow rules. They don’t even cross the street until the traffic lights say they should.”
Not a bit of it matters, because yesterday its seven-day case rate reached 21.7. Computer says no.
The other two nations taken off the travel corridor list on Thursday were Jamaica and the Czech Republic. With seven-day case rates of 20.7 per 100,000 and 20.1, they offer further evidence of a trigger-happy Government without an ounce of common sense.
It might be funny if millions of travel and tourism jobs weren’t on the line. One might be amused if these decisions weren’t forcing countless Britons to abandon their holiday plans – holidays they’ve looked forward to for months, offering a glimmer of hope throughout this whole sorry ordeal. I might laugh if thousands of my fellow citizens weren’t about to be told to lock themselves away for two weeks, unable to leave their home, even for fresh air, exercise, or to walk the dog.
Furthermore, these tactics make no allowances for the fact that spikes in cases are often temporary. The Netherlands, for example, was removed a few weeks ago when its case rate crept up to 24.5. The figure now stands at 20.9, and it’s still falling. In Belgium, also ditched this month when it crossed the sacred threshold, it has dropped to 17.8. Shouldn’t the Government now be giving the green light to quarantine-free city breaks in Bruges as quickly as it abolished them?
I’m not advocating a global travel free-for-all. Given the high case numbers in Spain, for example, removing the Spanish mainland (but not the virtually Covid-free Canaries) was forgivable. But scuppering travel to the likes of Switzerland and Austria, because they’ve poked a toe past some arbitrary threshold, is farcical. Does the Government really believe we are more likely to catch the virus visiting Vienna’s museums, or tackling the peaks of the Bernese Oberland, than we are exploring crowded Salcombe?
Are airports and planes (doused in sanitiser, with masks mandatory, and virtually deserted right now) any more risky than a busy London restaurant?
It is time for Boris Johnson and his useless team to stop hiding behind the data, which allows for no nuance, and start treating us like the responsible adults we are.