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Why the economic repercussions of the UK’s quarantine plan are causing concern

Objections are being raised to plans to make international travellers self-isolate for 14 days.

By Stephen Bush

Is the government heading for trouble over its plans to quarantine international travellers? Willie Walsh, the chief executive of IAG, British Airways’ parent company, has said that IAG is considering suing the British government over the plans for English airports, which, he says, will have catastrophic consequences for his business and other airlines. 

The economic repercussions of the plan are what is causing consternation among Conservative MPs. If a mechanism can be found to bring the issue to a vote in the House of Commons – remember that thanks to the powers of the coronavirus bill, many of these regulations can be set without a vote – then there are certainly enough Tory critics of the scheme to imperil the government’s majority.

Of course, that shouldn’t matter – because the principles behind the quarantine are broadly backed by the opposition parties. The problem, though, is that there is plenty about the government’s quarantine plans for supporters of the lockdown to criticise. Most new arrivals won’t be screened and there are no plans for a central quarantine. Anyone who is asked to self-isolate will be left to hop on, say, the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow Airport, without anyone to check whether they are self-isolating. They will also be allowed to sho and attend funerals.  

Those holes both increase the danger of the disease spreading and give the opposition parties licence to oppose them in the House while supporting the general principle – increasing the risk to the government.

The more important risk, of course, is to public health: and because of the various problems and delays to the United Kingdom’s test and trace infrastructure (which is not expected to be fully operational until September or October), the United Kingdom, as with much of Europe, continues to ignore and neglect the third pillar that has allowed Oceania’s democracies to contain the novel coronavirus: the ability to test, trace and isolate new cases. Without adequate measures to deliver that last of the three, any attempt to revive the economy will be blighted by social distancing measures – or derailed by a second spike in infections. 

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