9 February 2021

Close the borders, save the summer

By Sam Ashworth-Hayes

If we are to have anything close to a return to normality, we need to close the borders to the virus. The Government’s current policy – hotel quarantine for arrivals from a list of countries on a travel ban list – falls far short of what is needed. Failure to make a small sacrifice now carries the risk of undoing everything we have already sacrificed so much to achieve.

The UK’s vaccine rollout has made stellar progress, and right now we are on top of the Covid variants present in the country. In South Africa, concern about the Oxford vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing symptoms from the dominant variant has led to a pause on its use in the national vaccination programme. This variant is already in the UK in a small number of cases, and with luck we will be able to stamp it out. In order to avoid undoing our good work to date, we need to be sure that new vaccine resistant strains will not enter the country. This means mandatory, centralised quarantine for all arrivals.

The Government – and in particular Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson – has resisted similar measures throughout the pandemic, pointing to the loss of freedom involved, the fiscal costs, and the damage to the hospitality and aviation industries. All of these points are legitimate. Quarantining arrivals will mean limiting arrivals, and the ability of Brits to venture abroad on holiday. The up-front costs of shutting the borders are very real. The issue is that so are the costs of keeping them open, and these are far larger.

Keeping the borders open means allowing new variants to enter the country as they arise overseas, increasing the chances that a vaccine-resistant strain will start circulating in the community, and of having to start from scratch the cycle of lockdown and suppression to protect hospitals as we wait for new vaccine supplies to be ready to begin the process of building population immunity again.

The idea that this is the option most compatible with individual freedom is only true if choices are considered over a very short horizon. Quarantine measures will necessitate reducing passenger inflows to the number that we can process in such a scheme, and may well involve charging arrivals a considerable fee. As these pages pointed out last week, the loss of the ability to see family and friends is considerable, something I can personally attest to; with my family living on the Isle of Man, I haven’t seen my parents or siblings for almost a year. For others without my networks of friends and family in Great Britain, quarantine measures would prove even more isolating.

At the same time, right now I am, like the rest of you, living under something close to house arrest. Our freedoms have been limited to an extent that, a little over a year ago, would have seemed inconceivable – imagine your reaction in December 2019 to learning you would be limited to leaving the house once a day for exercise or buying food. People on the Isle of Man are under no such restrictions; the shops, pubs, and restaurants are open, sports clubs have resumed play, children are learning in schools – something that is supposed to be one of the Government’s highest priorities.

It is a very curious view of freedom which weighs the ability of travellers to enter Britain without a 14 day quarantine period in a comfortably appointed hotel room above that of children to resume learning and leave social isolation, of people to see their friends and family in this country again, or to resume working and kickstart the economy. The greatest increase in individual freedom any of us could enjoy right now is a return to normality, and that requires suppressing the virus until population immunity is achieved through vaccination.

These measures would not be without cost. Even if you believe as I do that to save the British summer, the borders must be closed, there is still some loss of freedom involved. The cost of running a quarantine scheme will not be trivial. And the aviation industry is likely to take a real hit, as it is keen to remind us. These costs are up-front and immediate, and we should not trivialise them; after all, industry groups claim the aviation sector – including spending by tourists – usually contributes about 4.5% of the UK economy when all is told. The problem is that these are not normal times; passenger numbers have dropped as the virus has spread, and refusing to act for the fear of costs now means paying a higher price later.

The problem, again, is that refusing to act for the fear of costs now means paying a higher price later. The tiered measures put in place in November saw GDP fall 9%. The full lockdown earlier in the year saw GDP fall 20%. The problem for the aviation sector is that occasionally locking down the entire economy to allow it to maintain business is simply not a good trade-off for any government willing to delay gratification.

Even fiscally, it is preferable to close the borders and pay compensation to the industries losing business. The Government spent £280 billion supporting businesses and furlough last year, and lost £100 billion in tax revenue – sums considerably larger than the total extended contribution of aviation to the economy in a normal, virus-free year.

The best way of summarising this is to say that the Government is facing a classic marshmallow test. For those of you unfamiliar with this piece of psychology research, the premise is straightforward: a small child is given a marshmallow, and If they can wait a short time unsupervised without eating it, then they are given another. The story of Britain’s pandemic so far is the Conservative party’s inability to delay gratification sufficiently to pass an equivalent test put in front of them.

The global pandemic was not over by last Christmas, and it is extremely unlikely to be over by this Christmas either. The prospect of the disease becoming endemic in developing countries means that the risk of new variants arising will remain for the foreseeable future. Whatever measures we put in place for living with Covid will be in place for a long time, until we have ramped up vaccine manufacturing capacity to a level where we can return to normality. If Rishi Sunak and the rest of the “save summer six” want the country to return to something approaching normality, asking arrivals to pay to quarantine for a few days in a hotel seems a relatively small cost compared to the prospect of returning to intermittent lockdowns.

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Sam Ashworth-Hayes is a journalist and economist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.