Johnson’s 14-day quarantine plan causes cabinet divisions

Michelle K. Wallace

Boris Johnson’s cabinet is divided over imposing a 14-day quarantine on most people arriving in the UK, with some ministers concerned the plans have not been fully thought through and would further damage the economy.

The government gave further details of the proposed quarantine rules on Monday as part of its wider plan to ease the coronavirus lockdown. It would include exemptions to the quarantine rules for travellers arriving from some countries, with France and Ireland expected to be included.

The border restriction will come into force at some point after May 13 and would require most arrivals to register contact and accommodation details. People will also be encouraged to download the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app. The government will make anyone arriving, who is unable to show proof of where they plan to self-isolate, stay in a designated quarantine centre.

But some ministers have expressed concerns about the introduction of quarantine. In Sunday’s cabinet meeting, culture secretary Oliver Dowden — who is responsible for tourism — raised concerns the quarantine plan would risk further economic damage.

Others present at the meeting said transport secretary Grant Shapps was initially also against the measures. Colleagues said he had “fiercely resisted” the measures but was now fully behind the idea as the country began to ease its lockdown.

Another cabinet minister predicted the quarantine plan “would unravel” and had not been properly thought through — a view that has been reflected in the airline and tourism industry.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways, said the proposal had come as a “surprise” and would hinder the aviation industry’s recovery from an unprecedented downturn. 

“There’s nothing positive in anything I heard the prime minister say yesterday. We had been planning to resume on a pretty significant basis of flying in July. I think we’ll have to review that,” he told MPs on the transport select committee on Monday.

“I don’t think anybody believed that the UK government would actually implement it if they were serious about getting the economy moving again,” he added. 

Mr Walsh said he understood from Mr Johnson’s comments that only air travel, and not other forms of travel into the UK, would be affected by the quarantine measures. “Maybe the prime minister would be able to clarify the science behind that, it seems strange to me,” he said. 

In his televised address on Sunday, Mr Johnson said the government would “impose quarantine on people coming into this country by air”. The subsequent government strategy document does not mention any particular forms of travel.

A joint statement by Mr Johnson and French president Emmanuel Macron over the weekend suggested that “no quarantine measures would apply to travellers coming from France at this stage; any measures on either side would be taken in a concerted and reciprocal manner.”

Meanwhile, the chief executives of many of the UK’s airports and airlines wrote a joint letter to the prime minister on Monday to express their “serious concern and frustration” about the quarantine. They said the plan lacked clarity on implementation.

“An open-ended quarantine, with no set end date, will make an already critical situation for UK aviation, and all the businesses we support, even worse,” it said. “People will simply choose not to travel to and from the UK, at the same time as economies in Europe and around the world begin opening up their borders and removing their own quarantines — making the UK aviation sector unable to compete.”

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