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Covid-19: “exaggerated” and “disproportionate” penalties for rule-breakers

Last week, England introduced a new rule that means that people travelling from 33 ‘red list’ countries will have to quarantine for ten days in government-managed hotels at a cost of £1750. As part of the enforcement of this new quarantine law, Matt Hancock announced that “anyone who lies on the passenger locator form and tries to conceal that they’ve been in a country on the red list in the 10 days before arrival here will face a prison sentence of up to 10 years”, with tough fines for people that don’t comply.

Former Tory MP and ex-attorney general Dominic Grieve called the 10-year penalty “a mistake”, “exaggerated” and “entirely disproportionate”. And truthfully, while getting COVID-19 under control is important, we need to seriously consider whether these new laws take things a step too far.

The fact is that the people who would choose to lie on their passenger locator form are not doing so out of malice. They just don’t want to have to fork out the £1750 on top of the cost of COVID tests that the government demands you pay for re-entry into the country if you visited any ‘red list’ countries. What if you don’t have this money to spare? Some people might argue that traveling in and of itself is a privilege, which is true, but flights to Portugal usually cost less than £100. The typical holiday to Europe doesn’t require you to spend this extortionate amount of money. Being able to afford the £1750 is a privilege and is completely unrealistic for your average person. Yet again we’re seeing the government’s great detachment from ordinary people.

In fact, I’d hazard at saying that if the government was willing to pocket some of the costs, people would probably stop feeling the need to lie on their passenger locator forms, and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion in the first place.

And even if this were still an issue, why hasn’t England introduced a blanket quarantine hotel law as Scotland has done? As we’ve seen with countries like Australia and New Zealand, where life has already gone back to normal, government quarantine facilities are relatively simple to regulate, especially if everyone has to stay in them. And if everyone risked facing a £10,000 fine for trying to break quarantine in one of these facilities, it is unlikely that anyone would even think to try it. This would be much more effective at achieving the government’s supposed aim of reducing the spread of new variants in the country. 

Regardless, the sudden introduction of this law is yet another issue. These regulations were published just three days before they were meant to come into force, which is absolutely shocking. Three days is nowhere near enough warning for something this dramatic. Anyone planning to travel to one of these places would probably already be there, so they would have no way to change or cancel their plans if they can’t afford to pay for the costs of hotel quarantine. Isn’t it understandable that some people would feel forced to lie?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called this penalty an “empty threat”, arguing that “pretending” that judges would sentence anyone to that long in prison “wouldn’t help anyone”. The fact is that judges will also recognise how wrong this directive is. Will they be morally willing to send someone to prison for 10 years for something like this? And if judges, rightfully, refuse to implement this outrageous law, what will happen? Will the government’s authority, and any laws they attempt to introduce going forward, be undermined? That is far too dangerous a path to go down.

Something I feel compelled to ask is: why now? Why has it taken this long for the government to take such strict action against travel? 

As an island nation, the UK should have been able to restrict travel quickly and effectively last year to prevent COVID from even entering the country in the first place. Places like Taiwan, Macau and Vietnam managed to rapidly implement strict COVID restrictions that have managed to get the virus under control. By contrast, only now that the UK has seen over 110,000 deaths and over 4 million infections in the past year is something really being done about this. And as we suffer through our third national lockdown, this policy is too little too late. Simply put, it is a feeble attempt to overcompensate for the government’s many fatal blunders this past year.

Image: Number 10 via Flickr