Wednesday 8 July 2020

The folly of reciprocity

The nature of travel controls in dealing with a pandemic is that the logical priority is to stop travel from higher risk areas into low risk areas. Why anyone would want to travel from a low risk area into a high risk area is one of life’s little mysteries, but there is no obvious reason for preventing them from doing so as long as they expect to be quarantined on their return. It should, therefore, be no surprise to anyone (although it does seem to have come as a surprise to some) that any list of countries from which a high-risk country like England will accept travellers will be longer than the list of countries prepared to accept travellers from that high risk country itself. And indeed, of the 59 or more (a number which keeps changing) countries considered ‘safe’ by the English government, 32 are still imposing some sort of restrictions on travellers from England. The only surprise in that, for me, is that 27 are not – I wonder who’s doing their risk assessments.
There is a problem for Wales and Scotland in this, of course – although the guidance on who may enter the country legally without a period of self-isolation applies only to England, the countries named in the English guidance are inevitably applying their rules to the whole of the UK. I can’t blame them given the lack of control over movement between those parts of the UK committed to eliminating the virus on the one hand and England on the other which is committed only to keeping infections at a level with which they believe that NHS can cope. That situation has been unnecessarily confused by the English government’s lack of discussion and consultation with the devolved administrations. The leader of the very best (but entirely non-nationalistic, of course) country in the world in every respect simply doesn’t see any need to consult anybody. Even, or perhaps especially, his own toadies cabinet. Discussion is for wimps, not world kings.
The English government has also added to the confusion with its unwillingness to spell out the  unavoidably one-sided nature of its advice (presumably for fear that doing so would reveal the true extent to which England’s handling of the pandemic has been so poor compared to other states), almost encouraging people to think that the problem isn’t with England’s handling of the virus, but with those pesky foreigners declining to reciprocate. From an Anglo-centric perspective, if ‘they’ won’t accept ‘us’, that’s evidence of ‘their’ mean-spiritedness rather than ‘our’ utter incompetence.
But reciprocity in such circumstances is a ludicrous idea – it amounts to demanding that because ‘we’ assess your country to be low risk on the basis of the number of cases and the rate of spread, ‘you’ must state that you consider us to be equally low risk and ignore all hard numerical evidence to the contrary. It’s English exceptionalism at its very worst; a demand that the rest of the world believes the lies and spin and accepts the overall greatness of England. It doesn’t help puncture the bubble when the official opposition seem to have bought into the same exceptionalism and unreasonableness – Labour’s transport spokesperson criticised the government this week saying "Now we see a plan to let residents of 60 or more countries into England without any reciprocal arrangements". English exceptionalism knows no party boundaries.
It’s an open question whether countries signing up to any lessening of quarantine restrictions are acting too soon – only time will tell. The English government’s decision looks more like a short-term economic one (which, if they’ve got it wrong, will actually turn out to be much costlier in the end) than anything related to public health. Seeking to arrive at mutual or reciprocal arrangements is about politics and spin; it has nothing to do with disease control.

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