28 January 2021

England’s hotel quarantine scheme is better late than never – but it doesn’t go far enough


Quarantine is an ancient word dating from the Black Death in 1347 when Venice required arriving ships to stay offshore. It comes from the Italian quaranta, meaning 40 days. Thankfully for me it was just 14.

My plane arrived into Canberra just ahead of schedule on a mild day in late November. We were taxied to a special gate and met at the end of the jet bridge by dozens of health officials in full personal protective equipment. “Welcome Home,” they said, offering water and Aussie snack food.

Over the coming hours we were assessed for various needs, allocated rooms, shuffled through immigration and customs segregated from the rest of the airport, and taken to special buses. At the hotel we were met by police and military guards, along with paparazzi documenting the arrivals. I was then given a sandwich and escorted to a room – taking my last steps outside of those walls for two weeks.

The first few days were spent catching up on sleep from the long journey, calling friends and family, ordering deliveries of coffee and smashed avo on toast, and having a friend sneak in gin (hidden among a tote bag full of toiletries). This turned into keeping myself busy working, playing online games, YouTube workouts, and running in circles around my room (resulting in various blisters and annoyed neighbours).

Two weeks and two negative tests later, I was very much ready to get out. A largely carefree world awaited me on the other side.

Australia’s hotel quarantine programme, which began in haste during March 2020, has not been without problems. But, along with largely effective testing and tracing, it has proven wildly successful. Australia has had over 40 times fewer deaths per capita compared to the UK. There is currently no community spread. People are enjoying summer with very limited restrictions.

By contrast, the UK did not introduce any border measures until June – and even then, it was just barely enforced at-home quarantine undermined by travel corridors. This was because of the misguided orthodoxy that there was no point trying to prevent the entry of a virus. It resulted in 1,300 separate international arrivals of Covid-19 and this week the UK passed the grim milestone of over 100,000 deaths.

The UK will shortly be embarking on a hotel quarantine programme for the first time. Home Secretary Priti Patel announced yesterday that arrivals to England from 22 high-risk countries – linked to new strains of Covid-19 – will be required to isolate in a hotel for 10 days. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to go further.

Even at this late stage, the rationale for a hotel quarantine programme is sound. There is a huge risk that the UK’s vaccination efforts will be undermined by a new strain of the virus – just like reopening borders during the summer likely sparked a new wave during autumn. Additionally, the existing at-home isolation requirements are very difficult to enforce and the virus can spread to other household members.

But the current plan for England is far too narrow. The programme will reportedly only apply to “hundreds” of arrivals: British citizens coming from countries that the UK has already banned other entry. It will be easy to avoid with a trip to a third country – including Ireland, which is only looking to hotels for arrivals from South Korea and Brazil – as people have already been doing. There is also the danger of introducing these mutations, or new as-yet-unidentified mutations, from other countries.

But even this is just half of the challenge. Hotel quarantine is not for the faint hearted. Beyond the large operational costs for taxpayers and travellers, and the personal toll for those locked up for 14 days, it requires very careful operational management. It is unclear whether the British state has the capacity to successfully pull it off, considering its recent performance.

It is not just a matter of booking out a few hotels near airports. If this is going to work it will be a huge task.

They will need to requisition hundreds of hotels for the tens of thousands of arrivals, undertake extensive arrival processing, re-test arrivals to identify positive cases, and organise busses for transport. This will require specialist training for police, security, hotel staff, cleaners, bus drivers and health officials. These staff will also all need to be regularly tested to prevent leaks into the community – as happened in Melbourne, resulting in a 112-day lockdown.

They will also need to organise catering, including for various dietary requirements, provide safe deliveries to rooms, and mental and physical health support. Then there is the tricky issue of hotel ventilation systems that could spread the virus between rooms, and will accordingly need to be upgraded to include filtering.

And we need to think about the longer-term implications of harsh border restrictions as well. Australia’s scheme has left thousands stranded overseas because of draconian caps on arrivals. It has also severely hurt two key Australian industries, international tourism and education, as well as impinging on citizens’ basic freedom to come and leave as they please.

The justification for the scheme – keeping out mutations – will be around for quite some time. As other countries vaccinate it may be possible to develop green, amber and red zones, requiring different levels of border restrictions: no quarantine for vaccinated individuals from zero Covid countries, testing and shortened quarantine for countries with small outbreaks, and the full ten-day quarantine reserved for countries with large outbreaks.

As much as it pains me to write this, the era of easy movement around the globe must be paused for now. The risks of the pandemic to both human life and our economic wellbeing are too high. But taking precautions today will pay off: both by saving lives and, eventually, allowing life to get back to normal.

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Matthew Lesh is the Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

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