Our blundering government needs to ditch quarantine and lift us out of the Covid doldrums

Oliver Smith
·5-min read
There’s lots of talk about living with this virus, but what’s life without a holiday to look forward to? - getty
There’s lots of talk about living with this virus, but what’s life without a holiday to look forward to? - getty

October may well be the loveliest month to visit Europe. The summer crowds have gone, prices are low, and it’s still warm enough in the Med to dine outdoors – but not so hot that sightseeing is a chore. 

Unfortunately, right now we have only eight holiday options that don’t involve some form of restriction – be it a quarantine on arrival or one on your return to Britain: Turkey, Italy, Germany, Poland, Sweden, San Marino, Gibraltar and (unless you live in Scotland) Greece. 

Of these eight survivors, Sweden, Poland, Greece – and perhaps even Italy – could be removed from the UK’s list of approved “travel corridors” this week. Which would leave us with a motley quartet of holiday destinations to choose from (and San Marino wouldn’t really count because it can’t be reached without first passing through Italy). It’s all getting rather silly. 

The UK’s quarantine policy was introduced to reduce the risk of Covid cases arriving from overseas, and the likes of Sweden and Greece could be put on the naughty step on Thursday because their case rates are slowly rising. In Sweden there have been 24.7 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days; for Greece the figure is 21.5. 

These numbers would have seemed worrying a couple of months ago, and the Government has previously said 20 per 100,000 is a key threshold for the introduction of quarantine measures. But the seven-day case rate for the UK is now 61.1 per 100,000, so what good will it do to prevent Britons from visiting Stockholm or Santorini? 

Surely we’re more likely to catch this supposedly fearsome virus, for which the survival rate is in the region of 99.8 percent, on British soil – using public transport, going to the office, visiting a crowded supermarket at 10pm to stock up on booze because the pubs have all closed – than we are in a foreign country with far fewer Covid sufferers. My holidays are usually spent enjoying the outdoors or slumped beside a hotel pool, not clubbing or visiting a care home. Wouldn’t a week overseas be the less risky option? 

If we must persist with this foolish quarantine policy, the only logical threshold would be whatever the UK’s case rate is that week – not some arbitrary figure that seemed appropriate back in July. Such a policy would significantly bolster that list of eight possible destinations. Croatia (31.3 per 100,000) would be back, as would mainland Portugal (49); we’d be able to visit Malta (60), Austria (55.4), Switzerland (31.5), Slovenia (43) and Slovakia (37.7) too.  

It’s just one obvious step that would give the beleaguered travel industry, which employs millions of Britons and is staring into the abyss, a much-needed boost – without increasing the Covid risk. There are others, of course. We could reduce the quarantine period to 10 days, something already done by the likes of Norway and Latvia for arrivals from high-risk countries. The NHS tells people who have tested positive for Covid to self-isolate for 10 days – why on Earth should returning travellers who almost certainly haven’t got the virus spend four extra days in quarantine? The chances that this policy will catch a slowly incubating infection are minuscule. 

We could relax the quarantine rules, allowing those without symptoms to do essential shopping and exercise outdoors, rather than keeping them under strict house arrest for the full two weeks. It might encourage a few more to book holidays and would have the added benefit of decriminalising a jog in the park. 

The most obvious solution, of course, is testing. This government is obsessed with it (Boris even wants to squander £100bn – well over half the annual NHS budget – on his loopy Operation Moonshot), so why aren’t we offering rapid Covid tests to travellers (preferably two, to rule out the problem of false positives) so they can skip the quarantine? Major German and Italian airports are already providing this option to those arriving from high-risk destinations, and in each country anyone who returns a negative result is free to get on with their lives: no self-isolation required. Clearly it’s not having a significant impact on their case rates. 

If we want to be overcautious, we could take the same route as countries like Iceland and Barbados by obliging arrivals to self-isolate for five days before freeing them from quarantine if they return a second negative test. Millions will be more likely to travel if the quarantine period is cut from 14 days to five, countless livelihoods would be saved, and our collective mental health would be given a much-needed lift. It would even give the Government a timely PR boost – there is nothing but benefits. 

Polls show that holidaymakers are in favour of testing, while travel companies and medical experts have offered their firm support. The only barrier is our blundering ministers and their myopic advisors. There’s lots of talk about living with this virus, but what’s life without a holiday to look forward to? It’s time for our leaders to stop being ruled by fear, waiting for a vaccine that might never arrive, and start making positive changes that will help drag us out of the Covid doldrums.