The Government is heavily relying on a bound-to-fail hotel quarantine propped up by the public's honesty. This marks yet another disastrous policy dead-end, argues our political reporter Jack Mountney.

Last week Matt Hancock announced details on the government's hotel quarantine scheme, from Monday 15th of February, passengers arriving from 'red list' countries will be required to enter hotel quarantine at a cost of £1,750 per person.

The Government states it is setting up one of the strictest border policies in the world. But this is simply false. East Asian countries, along with Australia and New Zealand, set up hotel quarantine in March and April last year. These have been applied to all, or nearly all, overseas arrivals. A year later, the UK has ended up with only a partial quarantine system.

It is impossible to see how this system will keep new variants out of the UK. SAGE has informed the Government that there would be a time lag between a new variant arising and the Government and it's scientists detecting it, deciding it presents a threat to vaccine efforts and shutting down travel from the relevant country. Boris Johnson and his Government's approach is frankly pitiful.

The problem is no longer the delay in introducing policy, more the fact that the Government's intended policy is full of holes, some of which result from its decision to opt for a selective quarantine system rather than a full one. If the government cannot plug these holes, then its policy is likely to prove a costly failure. 

First among them is the obstacle of categorizing travellers who need to enter hotel quarantine from those who do not. Travellers from restricted countries will arrive in the UK via third countries. How will border officials be able to tell exactly which passengers arriving on a flight from Europe did not start their journey in Dubai (on the red list) and which didn't? Unless a widespread information sharing arrangement's already in place, the Government will most likely have to rely on passenger honesty. A ten-day sentence in an airport hotel, at the sum of £1,750, gives passengers plenty of incentive to lie about what route was taken. 

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Another gap is the difference of hotel quarantine policy between the nations of the UK and Ireland. Already, passengers are taking advantage of the common travel area – now dubbed the 'Dublin dodge' – to avoid home quarantine in the UK. And it is difficult to see how Scotland can enforce its planned blanket hotel quarantine while England does not. This divergence in policy between the home nations has countless loopholes which will be used to the advantage of travellers.

The Government must also confront the abundance of challenges involved in setting up any kind of hotel quarantine system: sourcing enough well-ventilated hotel rooms, staffing them with people who understand infection control, and looking after vulnerable people who might have fragile mental or physical health. This inevitably will involve outsourcing including of contact tracing and PPE. It is a colossal cause for alarm, especially with accusations of cronyism, wasted public funds and neglect of specialist expertise seeming to pop up every week.

The government can look to Australia as an example to see that poor contracting can defeat the purpose of hotel quarantine. The city of Melbourne was badly affected with the virus transmitting from travellers to poorly trained private security guards working in the hotel. This is listed as a substantial cause as to the reason why Melbourne's second wave started, most of Australia's coronavirus deaths and a three-month lockdown was placed within the city.

With thousands of British citizens currently stranded overseas because of a lack of supply of quarantine places, there is also a human cost to the policy which will place ministers under pressure as long as the policy remains. There will be little point in hotel quarantine if the Government does not suppress the virus at home, thus minimising the potential for homegrown variants to grow.

The Government says it is taking a tough line on borders. But what it has delivered is an uneasy compromise between ministers who prioritise the economy over people's health. 

Ultimately, the Government must decide whether it actually wants to keep variants out of the UK or just give the impression it is trying to do so.

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