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10 February 2021

Matt Hancock’s prison announcement shows what the government is still getting wrong

We have a hotel quarantine policy that is tough enough to kill off the aviation industry, but not tough enough to kill off coronavirus.

By Stephen Bush

Travellers who lie about their flights into and out of coronavirus hotspots could face “up to” ten years in prison, Matt Hancock has announced, while travellers returning from coronavirus hotspots will have to spend ten days in hotel quarantine.

It’s a good reminder of that old rule, that when you hear someone use the words “up to” in politics or marketing, what they really mean is “nothing near”, or in some cases “nothing at all”. But it’s also an insight into what the government is still getting wrong in its handling of the pandemic. 

[see also: Will Matt Hancock’s new quarantine testing plan fix the problem?]

As it stands, no employer has been prosecuted for forcing their employees into work unnecessarily, yet individuals now face the prospect of a life-changing ten years in prison. Of course, the reality is that very few people who break this rule will be caught, making it fruitless as well as draconian. But it is particularly strange when the low-hanging fruit of workplace enforcement remains untouched. 

The other problem is that the ten-day limit is not long enough to guarantee that people who leave quarantine after it will not inadvertently spread coronavirus. The ten-day limit exists because it is a compromise between the government’s lockdown hawks and lockdown doves: but in the real world, it means that we have an airport quarantine policy that is tough enough to kill off the aviation industry, but not tough enough to kill off coronavirus. The British government’s failure to learn the lessons of this pandemic doesn’t bode well: either for the next stage of the battle against Covid-19 or the fights to come against climate change, the coronavirus recession or whatever the next crisis turns out to be.

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[see also: Podcast: are UK hotel quarantine plans enough to stop Covid at the border?]