How UK air bridges descended into a coronavirus policy farce

·4-min read

It’s competing in a crowded field. But after days of confusion, buck-passing and zealous over-briefing by officials, it has turned into one of the most chaotic policy rows of the entire coronavirus crisis.

The air bridge fiasco won’t get the same forensic examination that care homes, testing and lockdown rightly deserve, but critics say it has been an omnishambles from start to finish.

Over several weeks, the government has variously been accused of being reactionary and rudderless, while overpromising and unfairly raising the public’s expectations.

And some of that has come from Tory backbenchers. One called it an “utter shitshow”.

It has also provoked an almighty row with political leaders in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, described discussions about the travel arrangements as an “utterly shambolic experience”.

There had been grumblings about the futuristic-sounding air bridge idea for weeks.

The idea of forming agreements with individual countries to avoid a 14-day quarantine on return was on, then it was off.

Yet the hostility from the backbenchesto the blanket quarantine strategy meant a solution had to be found.

As the 29 June review date of the quarantine policy approached, country lists started flying around in the press – including popular Mediterranean destinations. Bermuda was thrown into the mix; Australia, New Zealand, Singapore.

UK visits to Spain

On 23 June, a government source, who did not want to be traced back to their department, said it would be best to narrow the focus to a very small “core” of European countries, with Germany and Austria likely due to their low infection rates. The list, the source said, was likely to be released by the end of the week.

The next day the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, told the transport select committee that he needed to speak to the devolved administrations but that he would come to parliament on 29 June to give more detail. It looked like a plan was about to be hatched.

It wasn’t. A call to the Welsh government press office hinted why. Officials explained they had only just been contacted by Westminster with details of plans. The Scottish government told the same story.

Nevertheless, on 26 June, the government briefed journalists that ministers had come up with a plan: to set up a traffic-light list of countries categorised by the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

Travellers arriving from low-risk countries would be exempt from quarantine measures when they arrived in the UK, which would mean for example Britons could go for a two-week break and not isolate on their return.

Talks were being had with France, Spain and Greece but the public still had to wait for the list of countries, with hopes it could be operational by 6 July. Greece threw a spanner in the works within days by banning all flights from the UK until 15 July.

By Monday the wheels really started to come off. Instead of telling parliament about his plans, Shapps gave a written ministerial statement, still with no list of countries.

UK visits to Turkey

Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland was not being properly consulted. Nobody seemed to know when this announcement would be made. One government adviser said it would be Wednesday. Later, the same person said: “I’m hearing Thursday.” Another countered: “Thursday. Which was always the plan.”

Meanwhile, government departments were playing pass the parcel. The Home Office – in charge of borders – said the Department for Transport was leading on it. One backbencher said the Home Office had “run off and disowned it when it got difficult”.

The Foreign Office, which oversees advice, directed all calls to the DfT.At one point, it was suggested the Department for Health and the Cabinet Office were also involved. The DfT said it had nothing new to announce.

Officials in Wales and Scotland revealed that the health secretary, Matt Hancock, had in fact been dispatched to try to talk to his counterparts in the devolved nations, as one adviser put it to “sort them out”. He couldn’t.

The original policy appeared to be on its knees, with reports that the green light for travel was due to be given to between 70 and 95 countries. The FCO had allegedly suggested it would be best to include a larger number of countries.

Advisers from various departments sounded utterly exasperated at the briefings going on – which were clearly happening at a level much higher than political adviser.

The DfT confirmed it had abandoned the idea of a “core” of European countries.

Shapps publicly blamed the Scottish government for holding up the idea. Sturgeon pointed out the UK position had changed three times in 24 hours.

Some advisers close to the process were aghast at Sturgeon’s claims Scotland had not been consulted. First, they said, the list of countries was always going to be fluid, and second Scottish scientists sit on the Joint Biosecurity Council that had been working on categorising countries by risk.

At 10.30pm on Thursday, there was white smoke. The DfT said Germany, France, Spain and Italy would be among 60 countries the government intended to list quarantine rules for, but for England only.

The full list of where Britons can travel to was due to be released at lunchtime on Friday. It was finally published mid-afternoon.

Map of listed countries
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