Connexion columnist Simon Heffer shares his opinion on the newly imposed France-UK quarantine rule.
New quarantine rules
The announcement by the British government of a 14-day quarantine period for people entering the country from France is profoundly stupid, not least because it is profoundly damaging to both the British and French people.
I must declare an interest: our precious annual holiday on the Brittany coast, for which we were due to set off next Friday, may now not happen because of it.
But leaving that minor consideration aside, the quarantine rule ignores various key facts; it badly harms Anglo-French relations at a time when the British need them to be as good as possible; and will cause untold difficulties for hundreds of thousands of people. If the British government feels it has won political support by doing this, it may soon realise – with an estimated 400-450,000 Britons in France at the moment – that the opposite is true.
There has undoubtedly been a flare-up in the infection rate in parts of France; but the death rate remains lower than in Britain, as does the rate of people being admitted to intensive care. The British government, whose leader famously has scant attention to detail, has an instinct to look tough and ‘ruthless’ when confronted with any difficulty, and the imposition of this quarantine is a prime example of that brand of fatuous political gesturing.
Most people, British or French, are sensible enough to act at the present time in a way that does not imperil anyone. France has even stronger rules about mask-wearing than the United Kingdom. Social distancing is enforced in France. Even the most gregarious of British tourists are likely to behave judiciously when meeting French people, as most of us have become used to doing so over the last five months in Britain.
We also know that if any of us develops any symptoms of Covid-19 (which it is now estimated that just 6 per cent of the population has had, and which less than 0.1 per cent of the population has died from), we isolate at once.
Questioning new regulations
So, as a consequence of the British government’s desire to look tough – something its mildly preposterous Transport minister, Grant Shapps, looks ever more ridiculous in seeking to do – thousands of Britons are besieging ports today, trying to get home before they have to lock themselves away for a fortnight. If this new regulation (which ought to be tested urgently in the courts) were so essential, why impose the 4am Saturday deadline? Why wasn’t it imposed with immediate effect? Why is someone who comes out of the tunnel at 3.59am on Saturday morning deemed in no need of quarantine, while someone in the car behind has to lock himself and his family up for two weeks?
And given the tunnel is Europe’s gateway into Britain now, what happens to all the lorry drivers and other commercial traffic that has to drive through France on its way to Britain?
This situation is not remotely comparable to the recent strictures applied on travel from Spain, or even from Belgium. If a driver has come from Italy and hasn’t broken his journey since before Mont Blanc, can he come to the United Kingdom as normal, or must he isolate simply because his tyres have touched French soil? One must presume that anyone driving from Italy, Germany or any other unaffected country through France who so much as has a cup of coffee at a motorway service station will have to head straight for house arrest on arriving in England. What is that going to do for trade with Europe?
For us and thousands of others like us, who had a holiday in prospect, the issue is not necessarily the 14-day house arrest on our return. We can all work from home and have our food delivered, and are lucky to have a big garden to roam around in.
Tourists left vulnerable
It is not even that the friends who were coming to stay, and who can’t work from home on their return, now won’t be able to come. It is that the extremist Foreign Office advice not to travel to France unless absolutely essential invalidates our travel insurance, and so any accident or medical emergency that happens there leaves us intensely vulnerable. In its obsession with not leaving itself exposed to political criticism, the government simply doesn’t care about the massive problems, expense, upheaval and even chaos that this rather arbitrary decision is going to cause. Nor does it seem to care about the ill-will this will cause in France, with the further blow it will deal to its essential tourism industry, just as we are trying to negotiate a Brexit deal, and are urgently seeking better co-operation with the French on the current spate of illegal cross-channel immigration.
The restrictions on Spain and other European countries have had few consequences beyond causing major irritation, and that doubtless prompted a largely unthinking government to do what has with France. But France’s sheer proximity to us is likely to mean that this is a decision that will have much more serious repercussions.