30 June 2021

A free pass for plutocrats to skip quarantine is as impractical as it is hypocritical

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If football does come home, it will be met with at the border with restrictions so bafflingly arbitrary it may wish to turn back. Amid the ongoing confusion and uncertainty around international travel, the Government has quietly introduced an exemption that will allow business leaders coming in from ‘amber list’ countries to leave quarantine for important meetings. Practically, epidemiological, economically and politically, this has to be one of the most absurd Covid rules yet.

The get out of jail free card applies to senior executives from multinational firms with UK branches, or international firms looking to invest. These tycoons will be able to escape isolation provided they are doing work that is likely to bring a ‘significant economic benefit’ to the UK. The exemption was first brought in briefly in December before being retracted when lockdown returned. History does not yet relate how many crucial meetings took place in those few halcyon weeks, but it was clearly enough to convince ministers to reintroduce the policy.

Which is surprising, because the list of caveats makes the exemption all but impossible to exercise or enforce. First, ‘significant economic benefit’ is defined as having a greater than 50% chance of creating or preserving 500 jobs, which must be in an existing UK business that already has 500 employees or at a new company within two years. To take advantage of the waiver you must fill out a form giving a ‘title or overview’ of your project and explaining why the work you’re doing can’t be done remotely or by another person.

The idea that borders bureaucrats are in a better position than businesspeople themselves to judge who should be at what meeting is bad enough. But nowhere on the risible form does it ask for evidence of how many jobs you’re planning to create, and there’s no suggestion of any follow up to determine whether or not you were successful. The information required is so paltry that there’s no way to properly police the policy or measure its benefits – so it’s pointless.

And even if it weren’t, it makes no sense to apply an exemption only to big businesses when we should be supporting small businesses and start-ups to drive the recovery. SMEs account for 50-60% of GDP and have been responsible for 70% of all new job creation in the UK between 2010 and 2019. There were a record 772,002 new companies started in 2020, an increase of 13.25% since 2019, only a fraction of which can hope to have 500 employees in two years time. Face-to-face contact with clients and investors is arguably more important to these fledgling firms than it is to established big beasts. The ‘500 jobs’ benchmark is a bad definition of ‘economic significance’ and an insult to thousands of business owners.

We’ve seen this before. Britain’s border policy has been illogical throughout the pandemic – porous enough to let in any variant going but draconian enough to bring the travel industry to its knees, keep families apart and all but ruin the summer. Others have argued compellingly on this site that much stricter border controls earlier this year could have enabled us to have greater domestic freedoms now. It’s been suggested that the delay to putting India on the red list allowed 20,000 people potentially infected with the Delta variant into the country. Had we held them off, the narrative goes, we could have vaccinated enough people to reopen as planned.

Personally, I’m not convinced we could ever have kept out international variants in the way, say, Australia and New Zealand have managed. Neither of those countries are as connected or have the integrated supply chains we do. Put simply, we have a road to the entire, industrial continent of Europe. About 10,000 lorries pass through the Port of Dover every day carrying vital supplies. When France briefly closed the crossing it was real threat to our food supply. Being an open, free-trading nation is one of our greatest strengths, but it means variants are always going to get here eventually.

That said, the situation we’re in at the moment is the worst of all worlds. We’re still living under unacceptable restrictions at home, and the prospects of going abroad look bleak for many. After 16 months of grief, sacrifice, loneliness and soul-sapping boredom, it’s neither selfish nor trivial to long for travel. Yet even as the Government makes positive noises about dropping quarantine for the double jabbed, it’s still promising hassle, delay and endless expensive tests.

Meanwhile, world leaders enjoy jolly barbecues on Cornish beaches at the G7, Dominic Raab is having meetings in Italy and the former Health Secretary has proved incapable of following his own social distancing guidance. VIPs from corporate partners – including Gazprom – can swerve self-isolation to go to the Euros at Wembley. A representative of a company that’s still sanctioned following Russia’s brazen novichok attack on the streets of Salisbury can get into this country more easily than a British citizen returning from holiday in Portugal. It all adds up to an impression of hypocrisy.

The more freedoms we get back, the more discriminatory the remaining limitations become. Yes, nightclubs are different to pubs, but as things open up it increasingly feels like sectors that are still shut are being singled out for peculiar punishment. Why can 15,000 people go to Wimbledon but 30 can’t dance at a wedding? Why can a mother and her one-year-old baby only leave quarantine to go to hospital with food poisoning but a plutocrat can go to a board meeting?

The cheese-paring way the restrictions are being lifted, combined with these random and unfair exemptions, is making a mockery of the communal effort the country made to beat Covid. It’s time to rediscover the three lions spirit of fair play, having the courage of convictions, and taking a knock but coming back stronger. Instead the Government keeps scoring own goals.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.