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27 July 2020

Imposing quarantine from Spain exposes the Covid Catch-22

The government has to choose if it believes that the pandemic is a crisis to be lived through or a new status quo to be lived with.

By Stephen Bush

British holidaymakers in Spain will have to enter 14 days of self-isolation when they return to the United Kingdom, after all four devolved governments opted to bring in new restrictions in the face of an increase in fresh cases of the novel coronavirus in Spain.

The move has seen shares in leisure and travel companies plummet, and left British tourists facing an unexpected stay in self-isolation when they return  which carries a particular cost for those holidaymakers who cannot work from home when they do so. 

It exposes the impossible task that the British government has set for itself in trying both to revive the economy and keep the novel coronavirus at bay. (While all four of the United Kingdom’s governments have embarked on that course, it is the British Treasury, which controls the furlough scheme  without which the lockdown would not be socially sustainable – which sets the pace of that course.) 

Every decision that encourages a return to economic growth increases the viral risk, but every decision taken in response to a growing risk from the virus harms the economy. Each of those decisions is sensible and can be justified in their own way, but the combined effect is like bailing out a boat with one hand and filling it with water with the other. 

Boris Johnson is continuing to exhort businesses which have pivoted successfully to distanced working to return to their offices. But employers looking at this decision and the local lockdown in Leicester are asking themselves: why would I unpick these changes if I might, at a moment’s notice, have to return to distanced working in the face of a local lockdown, either around my office or for some or all of my employees? 

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It all comes back to the central challenge facing the government: either you take a punt that palliative treatments and/or a vaccine allow a return to normal life sooner rather than later, and maintain the economic measures that have put much of the economy on cryogenic support, or you gamble that we will be living with the novel coronavirus for a long time and embark on a prolonged, economically painful period of adjustment to that new way of living. 

The problem is that both those options run the risk of being unpopular and neither is guaranteed to be the “right” course of action at this time. But the government has to choose if it believes that the pandemic is a crisis to be lived through or a new status quo to be lived with. It can’t succeed if the answer it gives to that question is “both”.