Air travel spreads diseases – but also wealth and happiness, at home and abroad

·3-min read
A flight attendant measures passengers temperature amid flight in the airplane bounded from Shanghai to Guangzhou, China, 18 June 2020: Alex Plavevski/EPA
A flight attendant measures passengers temperature amid flight in the airplane bounded from Shanghai to Guangzhou, China, 18 June 2020: Alex Plavevski/EPA

Last Saturday evening, just when travellers thought 2020 could not get any worse, it did.

The final Ryanair flight from Manchester to Malaga touched down in Spain just before midnight. When the passengers switched on their phones, they discovered that the UK’s favourite destination had transformed during their flight from a sunny, civilised and inviting country into one which poses “an unacceptably high risk for British travellers”. All of it, from Menorca in the far east to distant El Hierro, halfway to Venezuela.

By then it was too late. On their return, the hapless holidaymakers must spend two weeks in far-from-splendid isolation.

Early on Sunday morning at Gatwick airport, I met the first targets of the sudden reintroduction of quarantine.

They were returning travellers fresh off the British Airways plane from Barcelona. The capital of the Catalonia region has seen a surge in coronavirus cases during the course of July.

The consensus among passengers was that they would comply, though some expressed derision that their monastic self-isolation would commence just as soon as they had used the shuttle train between terminals at Gatwick (running at 10-minute intervals and accordingly getting ridiculously crowded) and crossed paths with multiple strangers at the railway station, on the train and during the rest of the journey home.

Serves them right, you might be thinking. No one should complain if they get caught on the wrong side of a quarantine announcement. Don’t they know there’s a global pandemic on, which was originally spread by air travel?

“Holidaymakers want their heads testing,” as Paul Taylor succinctly observed in a tweet aimed at me at lunchtime on Friday afternoon. Some of them certainly want their nasopharynges testing, with a negative Covid-19 result on arrival to curtail the extent of quarantine; the government says testing is not a viable alternative to quarantine.

Almost at the same moment, I heard from Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh airport, that one-third of his 750 staff are to lose their jobs.

“The situation has been exacerbated by the introduction of an ill-thought out and unworkable blanket quarantine policy which has massively impacted on passenger numbers,” he said.

Sudden, draconian decisions on travel may suit a government struggling to deliver clarity in the UK, but they cause immense and unnecessary damage.

You would be at far less risk of contracting coronavirus were you to spend August in Madeira, for example, rather than in the UK.

One month after the Portuguese island opened to tourism, it has just nine active cases of coronavirus. Yet you would then need to spend the first two weeks of September at home in the UK, which is recording many hundreds of new cases every day.

Air travel spreads diseases. But it also spreads wealth and happiness, at home and abroad. We should all respect the quarantine laws. In return, the government must respect the reality that holidays are important – emotionally as well as economically.

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