Continental challenge: when self-isolation follows sun and sea

A face mask, when worn correctly, should not impede hearing. But on the 9.09am from Barnham to Brighton, one lady seemed to imagine her shrill conversation was inaudible to us be-masked fellow travellers.

As the train drifted through the meadows of Sussex, we were treated to one end of her analysis of the principles of quarantine following a recent trip to Portugal. Of which more in a moment.

As you know, the default for arrivals to the UK from most countries this summer is to go straight home and remain there for two weeks.

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It is the closest most of us will get to house arrest: no walking the dog, no seeing friends, no venturing beyond “any garden, yard, passage, stair, garage, outhouse, or other appurtenance” that your dwelling happens to have.

“Stay in a well-ventilated room with a window to the outside that can be opened, separate from other people in your home,” the government stipulates.

“If you can, you should use a separate bathroom from the rest of the household.”

You may venture out only for a few very specific reasons: medical treatment, a court case, a funeral or for essential shopping when there is no alternative.

It is a heavy price to pay for the privilege of travelling abroad. Which is why we have seen another race to return to the UK before 4am on Saturday.

This weekend’s Continental Challenge is open to British holidaymakers in Austria and Croatia, who have been given just 35 hours to reach home. Some are driving hectically north and west in a bid to fly back from Italy or Germany, while others are taking obscure routings that are certain to increase their exposure to coronavirus.

In terms of minimising risk, it would have been much more sensible for the UK government to fix the deadline for midnight on Sunday; thousands of holidaymakers were booked on the dozens of flights home from Croatia, and a good number from Austria, on Saturday and Sunday. They could have finished their holidays as planned and proceeded home in an orderly fashion.

Instead, a good few travelled inland to the capital, Zagreb – a coronavirus hotspot – in order to flight back on the special departure laid on by British Airways to Heathrow, at £275 a seat.

No one would fault the intention to try to prevent British travellers abroad contracting coronavirus and bringing it back. But I fear the government is asking the wrong question: “What, overall, is the incidence and trajectory of coronavirus infections in country X”.

Those parameters are significant. But a better question when the numbers start looking scary is: “How can we minimise the likelihood of further infections?”

And setting an arbitrary 4am Saturday deadline is not the right answer.

Whatever you think of the government’s heavy-handed approach to international travel this summer, the rules should be obeyed. But I fear that the UK’s first large-scale quarantine does not look like the most respected law in history.

“I only went out to go to the shops and see mum,” the vocal rail passenger explained to the person at the other end of the call.

Though clearly in breach of the spirit and the letter of the law, her attitude to quarantine was evidently healthier than her partner’s.

“He went to Cornwall to see his kids who live with their mother.”

Later, on LBC Radio, the presenter James O’Brien told a caller he would have to report her to the police after she outlined her travel plans (one trip a month for the rest of the year, mainly to Spain) and cheerfully announced she had no intention of quarantining.

And when I explained the rules, @WandsworthEye tweeted in response: “All a load of ridiculous rubbish. I’ve no intention whatsoever of imprisoning myself in my home for a fortnight next time I return from a foreign holiday.”

For most travellers, I hope that social responsibility will be enough to ensure respect for the law. For some, it may be social disapproval that keeps them indoors for a fortnight.

Rather than taking a weekly roll of the quarantine dice, added a couple of countries here and subtracting the odd one there from the self-isolation requirement, the government should take a more measured approach – and acknowledge that in this uncertain game of risk management, what matters is that holidaymakers believe the calls are right.

Or, judging from the calls I have heard, the whole system will unravel dangerously.

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