On a particularly bleak day in February this year, the first arrivals were shuttled from an airport terminal to a hotel on the outskirts of Heathrow for 10 days of mandatory quarantine. Since then, tens of thousands have been through the process, with 7,942 people checking in on the week ending July 21 alone.
Despite domestic restrictions loosening, arrivals from 60 countries, from the Maldives to Turkey and South Africa, must still enter government-managed isolation, at a cost of £1,750 per person. The policy has been lambasted from all sides for being too draconian or woefully soft, but as travel to the UK opens up, how long can it credibly continue?
The Government has given no hint about when and how the strict policy might end. Initially, contracts were signed with 16 hotels for use of around 4,600 rooms until the end of March. At the time, the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock wouldn’t rule out extending it until summer and autumn, something that became inevitable as time ticked on.
He told the House of Commons on February 9: “We want, of course, to be able to exit from this into a system of safe international travel as soon as is practicable and as soon as is safe.”
He continued: “Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam set out some of the details we need to see in the effectiveness of the current vaccines on the variants of concern in order to have that assurance, and if that isn’t forthcoming then we’ll need to vaccinate with a further booster jab in the autumn on which we’re working with the vaccine industry.”
While there is plenty we still don’t know about the virus, recent data suggests one dose of AstraZeneca is 82 per cent effective against hospitalisation for the beta variant, the strain that relegated many countries, such as South Africa, to the red list. And back in May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was “increasing confidence” that vaccines work against all known variants. Given this conviction, is there still the justification to keep 60 countries, many with significantly lower case loads than the UK, subject to this policy?
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A clue could lie in the reference to a booster jab. As it has been reported that a third dose will be rolled out for the over-50s in autumn, could we see the policy scrapped once this has been completed?
The Government’s reluctance to set an end date contrasts with other countries using hotel quarantine measures. Even ‘Fortress Australia’, a pioneer of the policy, has indicated that it will end once 80 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated. Similarly Canada, which employs a hybrid system of three nights in a hotel and 10 days of self-managed quarantine, will exempt fully vaccinated arrivals from September 9.
Other countries, such as Poland, have used GPS monitoring to check whether arrivals are sticking to their self-isolation. Although undeniably dystopian, most would choose to be locked up at home rather than in a hotel at vast expense. The Government has frequently stressed how “robust” its home quarantine measures are and travellers have confirmed that frequent phone calls and house visits are the norm. With the world opening up, it’s not unthinkable that hotels might be retired for a more palatable home stay.
A key change is the arrival of Sajid Javid as Hancock's replacement, who has scrapped the vast majority of domestic restrictions in favour of ‘learning to live with the virus’. With nightclubs open and mask mandates removed, the UK’s domestic policy is relying on the strength of the vaccines, and it would follow that this could soon be extended to border restrictions.
Former Chancellor Mr Javid may well be concerned about the impact of hotel quarantine on business travel to countries such as the UAE, and there are growing murmurs of discontent amongst MPs about the continued restrictions. A senior Tory MP told the Telegraph last week: “We need to open up the Middle East. The international exhibition conference starts in Dubai in two months and we can’t have a situation where British people cannot go and showcase their businesses.”
We’ve also seen the fully vaccinated granted more travel rights in recent weeks. Since July 19, double-jabbed UK travellers returning from amber list countries (except France) have been relieved of the need to quarantine at home. If there is true confidence in the vaccines, it’s certainly conceivable that this right could be extended to those arriving from red list countries, though a complication might come with the varying vaccines that have been administered around the world. For example, the UK regulator has not approved the Sinopharm jab, which has been used alongside Pfizer in the UAE, and the Government might want to avoid granting uneven rights to travellers.
There’s no doubt the policy has become more incongruous as travel restarts. Since August 2, EU and US citizens have been able to travel freely to the UK (subject to testing). To open up to certain parts of the world surely builds resentment amongst others and makes the continued restrictions harder to justify. There’s also the possibility that hotels might want their rooms back, now that more overseas travellers are coming to the UK. However, according to industry insider Nicky Kelvin, of travel website The Points Guys: “There are very few hotels participating in the scheme at airports, therefore the proportion of rooms being used in the country is minimal.”
He adds: “It’s likely that the scheme has provided a healthy revenue stream for these properties in otherwise uncertain times and they are unlikely to want to give that up.”
A motivation for the Government to scrap the policy could be the concerning stories of food poisoning, rat infestations and generally poor conditions that consistently emerge from quarantine hotels. Worryingly, there have also been reports of sexual harassment of female guests from security guards, leading to a rule change that requires female guards to escort women to exercise, where possible.
Legal challenges have led to a u-turn in policy, where “waivers or fee reductions” will be granted to vulnerable travellers who prove they cannot afford the £1,750 price tag. Details are still to be finalised, but it could be a costly change and one that quickens the death spiral of hotel quarantine – or at least causes a headache that makes the Government re-evaluate.
Ultimately, whether the policy has worked will likely decide its future. Clearly in the UK, where the highly infectious delta variant now accounts for 99 per cent of Covid cases, hotel quarantine failed to keep the strain out. Even in Australia, where the system is stricter, the variant couldn’t be contained, causing significant community spread and subsequently a strict lockdown in Sydney.
The hotel quarantine system remains shrouded in mystery, with the names and numbers of hotels used kept secret and no indication of a long-term plan. However, as we move to a new phase of the pandemic, it’s clear their continued use clashes with any ‘back to normal’ push and that resentment is building on the Government back benches.
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