Why blanket measures make for good messaging, but unequal policy

The new rules on quarantine show the need to make unfair rules – but also to compensate for that inequity.

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The Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has criticised the United Kingdom's four governments for imposing a blanket requirement on British holidaymakers to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return from Spain – a measure that has been imposed despite Spain's new spike in infections being concentrated in only some regions of the country, and the Spanish islands having a lower caseload than the British mainland, according to Sánchez.

One reason the British government opted to issue a country-wide edict is because its advisers thought, in my view rightly, that muddying the message beyond simply "Spain" would result in confusion here in the UK and a lower incidence of people self-isolating when they needed to do so. While the result is unfair, both for holidaymakers and the tourist trade in the Balearic and Canary Islands, there isn't the same broad understanding of the differences (or the ease of enforcement around hub airports and transitions) that there would be about, say, the overseas departments of France.

But the problem is: it's far from clear that the UK can enforce even these broad lockdown measures. As Dido Harding, the government's test-and-trace supremo, rightly told a CBI webinar yesterday, if you are not eligible for statutory sick pay, the financial cost of self-isolation is not one you are going to bear. And the grim reality is that for many people, statutory sick pay is itself not enough to get by on either.

The basic inequity of voluntary self-isolation is that it works perfectly fine if you are working in a job where you can do your work from home, and neither you nor your employer are put out of pocket as a result. If you don't have that capability then it doesn't work: you either end up out of pocket, at risk of redundancy or – perhaps most likely – going back to work whether you ought to or not.

Government policy should be focused on redressing that balance: through targeted support for businesses that cannot work remotely or in hybrid offices, and more generous provision for the sick and self-isolating as a matter of course, rather than seeking to persuade the country's big businesses to unpick their distanced-working arrangements and leave yet more workers facing a choice between practising self-isolation or making ends meet.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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