Tighter border controls could prevent future pandemics, and Covid-19 threatens to bring an end to the EU’s freedom of movement, argues Richard Rimkus

It was unimaginable just a month ago that being able to buy a packet of pasta from your local convenience store would provide such a sense of joy and achievement.

Covid-19 has changed the world we live in as countries around the globe battle the threat. People living in civilised, democratic society would never have imagined that their governments would snatch their liberty from them. Shocking news stories abound from around the world – the violent and brutal methods deployed by the police in India to enforce lockdown to name but one.

The truth is, most people never thought that such drastic infringements on everyday life would happen. While many are deeply depressed and shocked by the draconian policies adopted, the vast majority accept that such extremity is necessary and justified.

Having lived through this crisis, it will be in the back of many people’s minds whether similar action will be taken in the future. After all, once you have done something once, it makes it far easier to do it again. Could ‘lockdown’ become an ever more common policy adopted by national governments in response to the global spread of a disease?

It is highly unlikely that would be the case. Firstly, the economic devastation is going to take years to recover from and any government battling to recover their nation’s finances would be insane to effectively shut down its entire economy for a second time.

Secondly, while the vast majority of the public are currently supportive of the strict action put in place to tackle the disease, it is improbable that such action would be accepted again, particularly if, like Covid-19, the disease originates on the other side of the planet, providing us with ample warning to enact policy to stop it from savaging our shores.

It is far more likely that attitudes to border control will change significantly as a result of this crisis.

To take the EU as an example of this – freedom of movement is at the very heart of the European project. Yet Member States abandoned its most treasured principle faster than a speeding bullet when Covid-19 began to afflict EU countries – and rightly so.

Given the ongoing situation, particularly in Spain and Italy is it really plausible that border control will be lapsed and freedom of movement return anytime soon? If the EU does manage to persuade Member States that this should happen, when is the sensible time to do so? What if there is a second wave of the virus? All involved will be very, very reluctant to do this for at least 12 – 18 months.

The truth is that the Covid-19 crisis has opened up a Pandora’s box of questions about whether freedom of movement really is in the best interests of Member States and their citizens.

And it is not just attitudes to border control in the EU that could change. One of the fundamental changes that could take place because of the current crisis is that in the event of a future pandemic, governments around the globe could choose to shut down their borders far earlier, in order to stop the spread of a virus developing abroad infecting its citizens.

In a scenario where a pandemic is developing across either side of the world, for example, most citizens would advocate securing their nation’s borders to prevent contamination. This would obviously cause economic problems for airports, airlines and the tourism industry to name a few. It would also require some form of quarantine and testing for British citizens returning from high risk locations.

However, such a move would protect people from contracting the disease as well as protecting the vast majority of the economy. The only real loss of liberty to citizens would be the ability to travel internationally for a period of time. Given the situation we are currently in, most people would quite happily accept that.

When this crisis is over, there will be a period of reflection on what worked and what didn’t, which countries dealt with the health crisis most effectively, which dealt with the economic issues most effectively and crucially, who managed to strike the right balance between the two.

Questions will also be asked about how, if such a threat presents itself in the future, governments should deal with it.

The best way of doing this is by acting swiftly to adopt a more rigid approach at our nation’s borders to protect both the health of citizens as well as the economy.

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