13:47 GMT08 March 2021
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    The UK government has announced mandatory hotel quarantining for Britons returning - or people visiting - from certain countries which will begin on 15 February and will run until at least 31 March. International observers have weighed up the potential costs and efficiency of the new programme put forward by Boris Johnson's cabinet.

    Under the new hotel quarantine scheme, anyone travelling to the UK from 33 "red list" coronavirus hotspots will have to stay in a government-approved facility for 10 nights. To that end, starting from 4 February the UK government requested hotel owners to provide accommodation for up to 1,425 travellers per day while trying to block-book 28,000 hotel rooms to meet the deadline.

    Who Will Pay for the Hotel Quarantine?

    It is expected that guests will have three meals per day in their room and will be escorted by security guards if they want to go outside. According to some estimates, the scheme's cost could reach £55 million. Although this sounds a lot, it pales into insignificance when compared with the billions of pounds spent by the government on the fight against the virus, British observers say. For instance, in 2020 the UK's expenditure on measures to curb COVID-19 and the effect it had on the economy amounted to around £280 billion.

    "The bill of £55 million is not very much in the grand scheme of things when we think about all the other costs related to the pandemic," says Andreas Bieler, professor of political economy at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham.

    ​At the same time, the government plans to recoup some money from passengers, given that their stay will cost £80 to £90 per person each night. Although the cost seems affordable at individual level, there could be some obstacles, according to Alex de Ruyter, a professor of regional economics at Birmingham City University and the director of its Centre for Brexit Studies. He expects that in practice "this would be difficult to police": "It’s hard to know how much the government will be able to recoup, although similar policies elsewhere have managed to defray a significant portion of the cost", he says.

    "I presume money could only be taken from visitors if they agreed in advance," remarks Alan Sked, emeritus professor at London School of Economics and Political Science. "But if they were being forced to quarantine I am not sure why they would."

    The whole idea of making people pay for the scheme is debatable, for three reasons, argues Andrea Trunzo, a UK-based economist: first, the travel is supposed to be essential; second, the cost per family is going to be massive, and Britons would be actually obliged to pay for the implementation of a public health policy, not a service; and third, though the quarantine scheme cost for the government may seem significant, it is a drop in the ocean compared with all the rest the government has spent on pandemic-related policies.

    ​Given all of the above, the government's plan to enforce payment on British travellers does not look good, according to the economist, since it could hit families badly - at a time they really need to travel - without changing significantly the total pandemic bill.

    On the other hand, £80 to £90 per day could hardly cover the cost per person of the quarantine scheme, deems Trunzo, who refers to a number of additional costs associated with the scheme: logistics, surveillance, safety, security, healthcare, assistance, etc.

    Why Effectiveness of UK Hotel Quarantine Scheme Raises Questions

    To date, hotels have offered their help to the government, and a number of the industry's members have expressed their interest in making rooms available, says Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, a British hospitality trade association, adding, however, that they have yet to hear any details of the scheme.

    "We are ready to provide assistance as and when hotels will be needed," she says. "We are currently awaiting further details from the Government as to how we might help and we are keen to discuss operability and implementation logistics to ensure objectives can be met safely".

    ​Still, the "red list" of hotspots could theoretically be expanded with new coronavirus strains being spread across the globe which means that the pressure on the travel and hospitality sector may mount and costs for the government increase.

    "The more countries are included, the greater the bill," explains Alex de Ruyter. "At present, international travel is extremely limited and the countries involved send only a limited number of visitors to the UK. As those things change the cost will rapidly ramp up".

    The aforementioned quarantine scheme was built upon the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies' (SAGE) 21 January strategy aimed at preventing infection from travellers returning to the UK and agreed with the government. According to the government's official website, "no intervention, other than a complete, pre-emptive closure of borders, or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities… can get close to fully prevent the importation of cases or new variants".

    ​Earlier this week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that it is "not practical" to completely close the UK's borders in response to criticism from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who calls for tougher coronavirus restrictions to prevent new COVID variants entering the country. The premier insisted that SAGE did not recommend a complete ban and that the quarantine hotels scheme could solve the dilemma.

    "Reportedly, the government has opted for a scheme affecting only travellers from known high-risk areas, rather than 'all visitors', perhaps in the attempt to balance the advice by SAGE with the challenges and the impact of closing borders or requiring quarantine," says Andrea Trunzo, suggesting that if the number of high-risk areas increases, the government may reduce or even dismantle the scheme altogether.

    Still, the government's reason behind the latest measure appears to be flawed, according to the economist. If the UK wants to follow SAGE's advice consistently it needs to quarantine all visitors, not only those coming from hot spots. At the same time, "closing borders or quarantine are not sustainable policies in a global country such as the UK and reaching zero COVID-19 at global level is not a realistic working assumption in the short term" given that the virus is mutating, says Trunzo.

    The government's hotel quarantine scheme appears to be yet another "extreme policy with no clear objective and no clear exit strategy", suggests the economist, calling for a more pragmatic approach during the pandemic.


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