Paul Mercer: Covid tests, airport checks – and how to avoid British citizens from being stranded abroad

18 Jan

Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.

The move to insist that returning travellers take a negative Covid-19 test makes sense, because it reduces the chance of new infections being brought into the UK, and means that passengers are less likely to infect each other.

Tests in Canada revealed that 1.5 per cent of non-symptomatic travellers were positive. Although this number seems low, it suggests that every international flight is importing potentially three or four infected people. Other research has suggested a minimal chance of catching Covid-19 from another passenger on a plane. But even if only 95 per cent of passengers succeed in getting the test, that would reduce the number coming into the UK with it to less than one in 1,300.

Governments rightly recognise that some foreign travel is necessary for international business to continue, but placing impenetrable barriers in their way ultimately means that contracts don’t get signed and the economy suffers.

On January 11, Robert Courts announced that “passengers arriving by ship, plane or train will have to take a test up to three days before departure and provide evidence of a negative result before they travel”. This was defined in a subsequent statutory instrument published on January 16 – the day before the changes were implemented.

The rules largely rely upon threatening to fine airlines who fail to check rather than doing so when one arrives in the UK, although immigration officers can still impose fixed penalty fines, starting at £500 for failure to produce a certificate.

The Government recognises that in some cases obtaining a test within three days may be difficult, but the problem is that airlines, faced with the threat of a £2,000 fine, are unlikely to allow any UK-bound passengers to board without a certificate.

A significant problem is that although many countries are offering ‘48 hour checks’ the reality is that these take longer, because the certificates can only be picked up later on the third day.

Typically, they recommend that you turn up for the check at 8.00am and collect the result two days later at 3.00pm – a 54-hour turnaround. If you assume one hour to get to the airport, it follows that you can only depart between 7.00pm and 9.00am to meet the 72-hour rule. The rules are quite specific that it is the time from when the sample was taken rather than when the certificate was produced that counts.

A third difficulty is that the negative test result must include one’s date of birth and when the sample was taken. I have had two Covid PCR tests outside the UK in the past two months, and neither of them met these requirements, although both included my passport number – which, curiously, has been omitted from these requirements. If airlines follow these rules strictly, then many people will be unable to return to the UK. The new policies stipulate that certificates must be in English, Spanish or French, and this seems likely to exclude even more people.

A final problem is that there is no way for travellers to get clarity about these regulations. Courts stated that British nationals who were having problems meeting this requirement “should contact the nearest consulate, embassy or high commission”.

When I followed his advice last week, I was informed by ‘David F’ at the ‘Consular Contact Centre’ that “the Home Office owns information regarding entry to the UK, including testing requirements, quarantine and exemptions”, and that he could therefore not help. Instead I should “contact the Home Office”.

He added that “for information about Covid-19 testing requirements abroad”, the Foreign Office recommended “an Internet search of the words ‘Covid testing near me’.” This produced helpful links to Chicago, Mumbai, Cheltenham and San Francisco.

The new regulations have also quietly taken away some of the exemptions from quarantining introduced for business travellers, those involved in advertising productions, the arts, television production, the National Lottery and journalists.

If these rules are to be effective with impending legitimate travel, more than reliance upon airlines and the occasional random check by an immigration officer is required. The current online Public Health Passenger Locator Form’ (PLF) works seamlessly, because it is linked to passports which are checked at eGates on returning to the UK. Passengers without the form are not allowed through.

It would make more sense to add a requirement to attach the Covid Test Certificate to the PLF and enter its details at the same time. This would offer several advantages. It would deter the temptation to submit a fraudulent certificate; it would make it considerably easier for airlines to carry out the necessary check; and the UK authorities would have a record that the appropriate certificate had been obtained.

Over the next few days, it will become apparent whether the Government, in reducing the risk of transmission, has stranded many British citizens abroad who have legitimately travelled for business purposes.

Ryan Bourne: First, Covid-19 lockdowns. Next, climate change ones – rationed car use, no red meat. Coming soon to a country near you?

9 Dec

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

We are at the beginning of the end. Provided vaccines prove as efficacious as trial results indicate, and absent unobserved side effects, the rollout to vulnerable groups should reduce Covid-19 death risks substantially and rapidly.

Inoculations down through the priority list will then put us within reach of a herd immunity robust to ordinary behaviour. Life, it seems, could be “back to normal” by the spring or summer of next year.

I’ve never been a “V-shaper” Panglossian on the economy. You can’t switch economic life on and off without causing permanent damage. But there is nevertheless reason to be optimistic of a robust recovery next year. What is more uncertain are the longer-term consequences of this experience on our collective psyche and politics.

American economists Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp, and Venky Venkateswaran have warned of a depressive “scarring” effect, as we use the experience to revise our assumptions on the probabilities of major shocks. If we collectively infer that tail-end risks such as global pandemics are larger, then investments become less attractive.

Think alone about the willingness of entrepreneurs to go into the travel, hospitality or leisure industries after this. Then think of the effect of the risk of having to pivot to home working again, generalised across other sectors.

Alongside that are the impacts on the role of the state. Economic historian Robert Higgs’ work has highlighted how crises generate a ratchet of government power. Wars, depressions, and emergencies see powers centralised, before receding again.

But the state never quite falls back to the same size and scope as before. After the Coronavirus, we will see more taxpayer funds for virus-related public health, vaccination research, and the subsidisation of PPE production capacity. Government will also be met with demands to maintain Covid-level welfare benefits and industry-specific stimulus as a tool for future downturns, a la Eat Out to Help Out.

Lockdowns are the obvious area where these two effects could come together most damagingly. Highly crude shutdowns had a strong logic in Spring, given the high uncertainty about the prevalence and risks of the virus, and with Italy highlighting the dangers of overburdened hospitals.

More recent national measures reflect instead an ongoing policy failure to institute better control of Covid-19, but may nevertheless have passed a cost-benefit test given the arrival of vaccines (a case that the Government did not adequately prove).

Whatever your position on the desirability or consequences of lockdowns in this particular crisis, however, it’s clear that suspending economic and social liberties today brings with it the temptation for politicians to utilise such powers again – and for businesses and individuals to suspect that they could.

Given the way that politicians throw around terms such as “emergency” or “epidemic,” it is not an intellectual leap to imagine future leaders demanding similar measures for other ambitions. And therein lies a source of economic discontent—an incalculable drag or doubt for a generation.

Already, the economist Mariana Mazzucato has pitched the idea of “climate lockdowns,” should governments not deliver the green revolution she desires. In the service of mitigating the “climate emergency,” the “state would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.”

Of course, we can avoid all that, she says, if we are willing to “reorient our energy system around renewable energy” and “evict fossil-fuel interests and short-termism from business, finance, and politics”—the goals Mazzucato wants to achieve with her threats warning of what might be needed otherwise.

Now, it might seem far-fetched to imagine a world where one could face fines or jail time for driving too much, or eating steak frites. But before this year, one could have said the same about meeting four households on Christmas Day, or not eating at least a scotch egg with your pint.

Madeleine Grant worries about how the example of this pandemic might normalise health surveillance or screening for colds or flu. But it’s the everyday lifestyle regulations that have been truly novel – including the forced closure of certain businesses and the bans on gatherings. The threat of repeats predicated on the ends justifying the means is what we should be most attentive to.

To mitigate this temptation requires a reaffirmation of the legitimate justifications for government interventions. From an economic perspective, there is a defensible consequentialist claim that governments should act where huge, dangerous externalities result from collective action problems. Yet in doing so they have a duty to both prove the case and to account for these externalities in the least harmful way possible, only reaching for the most extreme measures when the consequences of inaction are grave or imminent.

The climate lockdowns idea is so pernicious not just because the imminent threat is absent. The reasoning presumes that governments should go beyond accounting for the externality, say through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes, instead using the “emergency” to justify actively ignoring market conceptions of value, threatening vast restrictions on how you live your life unless the planners’ vision of the world is achieved. Mazzucato’s argument is not just about reducing CO2, in other words, but about using the threat of lockdowns to push for abandoning consumer-led markets entirely.

We have seen this type of thinking proliferate during this crisis. Last week, Jenny Kleeman wrote for the Guardian about lab-grown meat, which many see as a useful pathway to reducing the environmental impact of farming and the ethical concerns many have with meat consumption. Rather than embrace these innovations as a way to work with consumer preferences to reduce the impacts of meat eating, Kleeman simply declared it would be preferable if we “simply stopped eating meat, or ate it far less often.” Her inspiration? The sacrifices of the Coronavirus in showing the massive behavioural changes we are “able to make” in extremis.

As we exit this crisis, we must not forget that underpinning a healthy market economy is the idea of the sovereign consumer, who knows what he or she wants, and whose welfare is enhanced by acting on those preferences. The bar for curbing activities that bring us joy or happiness should be very high indeed. And to the extent that economic or social problems do require government interventions, they should work with the preferences of consumers, not treat them with contempt, lest the economic welfare costs spiral.

Lockdowns were a panic button reaction to an acute emergency. Their re-use was a signal of the government’s dismal failure to mitigate the virus in less costly ways. But we must quell talk of them becoming a model for solving future economic and social challenges, or else the expectation of them could itself be economically corrupting today.

Robert Courts: How our new Test to Release scheme will help to revive British tourism

27 Nov

Robert Courts is Transport Minister and MP for Witney.

2020 has been a year like no other. During this pandemic our reality shifted, slowly at first – but as borders closed, flights were grounded and millions stayed at home, our world became less connected, less open, and less familiar.

It’s time for that to change. Our decisive action to prevent the virus from spreading freely throughout the world came at the price of a hammer blow to the UK aviation industry, a booming sector that in normal years contributes around £14 billion to the economy and directly employs 130,000 people.

But aviation is a British success story, and we must get it back in the air. That’s why we’ve developed the Test to Release scheme which, just like the vaccines now around the corner, will provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the sector.

In just a few short weeks, passengers arriving into England will be able to choose to take a Covid test at home. This is to shorten the required period of self-isolation by up to a week and go about their daily lives – provided, of course, that they receive a negative result.

It’s a real game-changer. Not only will it allow for the restart of our world-leading long-haul airline industry, but crucially, as it relies on a single test, it is also affordable – opening up short-haul travel too. A UK that has visitors from across the globe is what we’ve come to know and love, so I’m glad we’ll once again see tourists from Brussels to Bermuda in our towns and cities.

In addition, as we are insisting on the use of the private testing network, it will not burden NHS Test and Trace. Doctors, nurses and teachers – these vital workers must have first call on public resources.

Our route out of this pandemic is looking more positive than ever, but we must focus on what we can do right now to bolster travel while keeping the public safe. Giving people the choice to test on day five not only encourages travel, but supports the industry when it needs it most.

From the very first days of the pandemic we’ve followed the science, and Test to Release is no different. Scientists have told us that the effectiveness of a day five test is significantly greater than the effectiveness of a single test on arrival.

Of course, I understand the frustration felt when we saw other countries such as Germany, France and Iceland rushing to eliminate the need for self-isolation through testing on arrival. However, we’ve seen time and again that countries didn’t in fact eliminate the need for self-isolation. The practice was just re-introduced when imported case numbers rose once more.

There are no easy ways to solve the problem of imported cases. That’s why we stuck with self-isolation plus Travel Corridors while looking for a longer-term solution. I believe Test to Release is that. So by taking this approach we can be absolutely certain that we can continue to prevent the spread of this virus while reigniting confidence in international travel.

My lifelong passion for aviation is rooted in its ability to connect people. Test to Release is the best example of how we can make that happen again. For those that choose to, it will provide the ability to holiday again, to visit family again, and to do business again. It signals to the world that the UK is ready to once again lead the way when it comes to travel and tourism. Test to Release will bridge the gap between the dark days of the pandemic and the bright future ahead.

But it’s only been possible thanks to the tireless work of this Government, hand in hand with the private sector. We’ve been working flat out with the health, travel and testing sectors to revive tourism and travel. No doubt there will be tough months to come but airlines, ports, and operators can look to the future with more optimism than ever before.

We know how hard it’s been for an industry that provides for so many, and that’s why we’re offering a new package of financial support in the New Year for English airports and ground handlers serving them, to shore up jobs and reinforce local economies. Travelling has always been one of the great joys of modern life, and I’m delighted to say it will be again, in 2021 and beyond.

Rachel Wolf: Net Zero risks upending our lives and livelihoods. Here’s why carbon pricing gives it a better chance of working well.

2 Oct

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Worrying about the state of the environment in the middle of a pandemic might feel like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Will the public question the Government’s sense of priorities if ministers start talking about how to protect the environment in the midst of a health crisis and a long potential downturn?

Actually, no. This week marked the first substantial policy intervention of the Prime Minister in months – a long awaited change to the education system that will make it easier for adults to retrain, and support more technical education. The rationale was clear: now, more than ever, we need to make sure people are trained for their next job.

The same argument can be made for the environment. The hard lockdown and the gentle recovery reminded people of two things: that everyday life is better for everyone when roads are quieter and the air is cleaner; and that economic growth is always precarious. That means we need to focus on industries and technologies of the future that will help maintain jobs and living standards.

In short, precisely because of their Covid-19 experience, the public have seen the importance of a practical, commercially-minded environmentalism.  That is fortunate, because there are some major choices to be made, and we are unprepared for them.

The target of Net Zero emissions by 2050 was passed into legislation with little public notice – most people still haven’t heard the term. There was also remarkably little Westminster debate: all the leadership candidates in 2019 signed up to the policy, so scrutiny was absent. Then, of course, the pandemic halted the entire domestic policy agenda. For this reason, we are still waiting to understand exactly what ending a 200-year dependence on fossil fuels really entails.

In my view, carbon pricing must form a large part of the answer.

As someone on the centre-right, I have always simultaneously applauded the aims and had great fears about the execution of Net Zero.

First, I worry it might upend too much. Our economy and lives are built off copious amounts of affordable energy. It is the main reason we were able to escape the destitution of the past. A life unimaginable to even the elite in the eighteentj century is now accessible to nearly all.

Therefore, any successful programme to reduce emissions must understand that people will not go backwards. Policies must work within the grain of people’s lives – not rewire them. We cannot be against trade; or consumption; or travel.  We just need ways to achieve all three without catastrophic environmental effects.

Second, I worry the plans rely on an implausible level of omniscience and competence from governments. We cannot engineer economies. We do not know exactly what innovations to support. We are likely to end up with endless unforeseen consequences and costs. We can encourage and support technology and invention; but prescribing what it should look like in 50 years time? That’s implausible.

It is for both of these reasons that I have spent much of the last six months working for an independent commission on how carbon pricing might practically, and technically, work.

To put it simply, possibly too simply, a carbon price requires those who produce, distribute, or use fossil fuels – or who produce greenhouse gas emissions in other ways – to make a payment for every tonne of greenhouse gases that enters our atmosphere.

In principle, the arguments for a carbon price are fairly obvious. It works with the grain of the market. It doesn’t make grand regulatory predictions about what will work, what we should do, or how exactly people ought to change their behaviour. It just prices in the ‘bad’ – in this case, emissions.

In practice, too, it has been effective. Electricity is the only area we have had a consistent approach to carbon pricing in the UK, and that is why electricity is the area where we have driven down emissions the most.  But electricity represents only a minority of our carbon emissions, and we now need a clear approach to the rest of the economy.

Carbon pricing also provides two things that we now – badly – need.

First, revenue. In some countries, carbon pricing is completely revenue neutral, and the money is distributed back to households. This deals with the challenges of the environment without leaving people worse off. But in others, it is used to support general government objectives – like funding the health service (or reducing the deficit).

If the Government needs to raise money, doing it in a way that will win public support and support environmental aims, without burdening businesses excessively, is a sensible way to do it. The other way to use revenue is to support transitions to cleaner energy alternatives and new green jobs – incentivising people away from carbon emissions, while supporting innovation.

Second, it provides certainty. A lot of the money for net zero should come from private investment. A fixed, clear price gives them the confidence to spend.

We already have some carbon pricing in the UK tax system. Unfortunately, it lacks transparency, is far too complicated and is piled sequentially on top of electricity bills. It has the bizarre consequence of actively encouraging people to move from electricity to gas – the opposite of what we want if we care about carbon emissions. Neither consumers nor suppliers have a clear idea of who is paying what and why.

Carbon pricing is not a silver bullet. I have oversimplified the changes necessary to reach Net Zero, and in our commission report we outlined a list of complementary policies required for different sectors to reach it. They recognise that the cost of reaching Net Zero is likely to be different for electricity, heating, industry and agriculture, and that the technologies are less mature for some sectors than others. Nor can it be too high: the economy is fragile, and business must be able to recover and grow. But the basic human principles remain – if there is a price, people will change their behaviour, and human ingenuity will always outstrip governments’.

We have been submerged in environmental rhetoric for years. Now the UK, alongside other countries with similar commitments, is having to make some real choices. Often, understandable fear of a public backlash has held them back – our research suggests there’s a credible way of gaining public consent and achieving our environmental aims: by having a clear price, credible alternatives for people to switch to, and cushioning so that no one is too badly affected. That is both deliverable and desirable, and it should form the core of the UK’s net zero roadmap.

Even Johnson’s opponents should regret the ruining of his holiday

23 Aug

It is fair to say that Boris Johnson has not been in receipt of universal sympathy for having had to cut short his family holiday to Scotland after the location was leaked to the press.

Beyond those spiteful souls who simply enjoy seeing misfortunes inflicted on the other side, there are plenty of commentators asking why the Prime Minister was on holiday at all. Doesn’t he know there’s a crisis?

The idea that Johnson ought to be personally helming the Government’s response to the A Levels fiasco (although how hard is it to raise a white flag) fits into a broader critique of his alleged ‘Chairman Boris’ leadership style.

Such an attitude seems short-sighted. Important although the Prime Minister undoubtedly is, the Government really ought to be able to tick over for a couple of weeks in his absence – especially if he remains on hand to make important political judgements, as he did when signing off on Gavin Williamson’s u-turn.

Moreover, if Johnson really is that essential then making sure he has the chance to get away for a bit becomes more important, not less. He is serving in an extremely responsible role at a time of national crisis, and much hinges on the judgement calls only he can make. Trapping the Prime Minister in Westminster and burning him out is not likely conducive to getting his best work in the long term.

It also sends a toxic message downstream into political culture. If we don’t allow politicians space to holiday in peace, what can already be a fairly trying job becomes just that bit more unsustainable. Expect more people to sit in Parliament for only a couple of terms before seeking gentler pastures elsewhere. Considering the concerns over a weak Cabinet and inexperienced whips’ office, is that really a trend we wish to exacerbate?

Johnson deserves a holiday. On a human level, he’s a new father who has only recently fought off a life-threatening illness. On the institutional level, his treatment sets the tone for much of British politics. Love him or loathe him, give him a break.

Andrew Griffith: Suspending Air Passenger Duty could give the aviation industry the lifeline it needs

10 Aug

Never has there been a more important time for Britain to show that it remains open for business.

The UK has been an open, connected economy since before Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations in the eighteenth century. The prosperity to pay for the high-quality public services that we have come to expect depends fundamentally upon trade, exports and the world actively choosing to “do business” here. Among leading countries, only Switzerland, Singapore and the UAE – three nations incidentally that are all now offering airside testing for Covid – are more reliant upon international trade in order to maintain their own standard of living.

Aviation is therefore doubly important to the UK economy. It is a large sector, accounting for many high skilled and well-paid jobs. But even more vital is its role at the centre of British trade, carrying exports in the holds of the same planes that bring investors, tourists and students to the UK. Indeed, as the UK seizes the opportunities of becoming an independent trading nation again at the end of this year, this strategic importance will become even more pronounced, given the export ‘infrastructure’ that our aviation industry provides in supporting connectivity and routes with the rest of the world.

That is why a recent report from Airlines UK and York Aviation projecting a decline in the UK’s connectivity from the impact of Covid is so dispiriting. While a short-term decline is unsurprising given the reality of the impact of the pandemic on the sector – one major London airport closed and air passengers at some points down by 97 per cent – the persistence in decline is.

Forecasts show that from this December the UK is expected to see a decline in long-haul connectivity of over 40 per cent. For domestic connectivity, this is forecast at 35 per cent, and for short-haul, just under 20 per cent. Such a rapid clogging up of the arteries of Britain’s trade with the world should concern us all.

What the report also shows however, is that not all of this decline is inevitable.

The UK has a diverse and competitive aviation sector and the Government is rightly reluctant to try to pick winners or to second guess the motives of commercial businesses. Some airlines were facing challenges long before Covid.

However, one sector-wide lever available to the Government to help kickstart a recovery in aviation is to suspend the additional burden of Air Passenger Duty (APD). By waiving APD for a year, it is estimated around half the routes that would otherwise be lost could be saved, providing a very real boost to the prospects of the sector.

Under this scenario passenger demand would increase by around 12 per cent, equating to 21 million passengers against a baseline number of around 170 million. Such an increase would safeguard thousands of aviation jobs across the country including those of my constituents in Arundel & South Downs near Gatwick Airport in West Sussex.

Given the reduction in passenger volumes anyway, the cost to the Exchequer would be relatively modest and compensated for in the longer term by retaining a larger industry tax base that would otherwise be lost.

If suspending the headwind of Air Passenger Duty can do anything to help to get UK aviation – our key linkage and lifeline to the rest of the world – back on its feet sooner, then we would be remiss not to seriously consider it.