Donning a hat and dark glasses, my friend slips out for morning coffee

London Letter: UK's quarantine rules are stricter than lockdown, but few are compliant

A postman  in Oldham, Greater Manchester, one of the areas in Britain where people are subject to a local lockdown in recent weeks. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

A postman in Oldham, Greater Manchester, one of the areas in Britain where people are subject to a local lockdown in recent weeks. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

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The phone was on speaker and I was culling some books for the charity shop while my fairly new friend Jennifer was serving up a no-holds-barred account of her holiday in Mallorca.

“I started snogging him in a plastic chair in Palma Nova, right? 52, two grown-up sons, has a really good relationship with his ex-wife he said. But then I was talking to the estate agent and he’s like a mate as well, right? And he says, oh you met him did you? And he says, you know his ex-wife is dead?” she said.

I told her she shouldn’t jump to conclusions and that nobody was perfect and she might be dwelling too much on his faults because she had more time on her hands than was good for her. I knew whereof I spoke. My holiday in France had been less eventful than Jennifer’s but, like her, I was serving out my time in quarantine under the strict conditions imposed by the British government.

Harsher than the lockdown at its most severe, the rules forbid any exit from home for 14 days even for exercise or shopping. You fill in an online form on your way back into Britain, giving details of where you will be isolating and a number for them to call you on. Nobody calls.

No one I have spoken to has been fully compliant with the rules and Jennifer told me she put on a hat and dark glasses every morning to have breakfast at a new café where the coffee costs just £1.50.

The list of countries requiring quarantine is updated every week and Britain’s most popular holiday destinations have been shut off one by one throughout the summer. The blacklisted countries are selected on the basis of their 14-day average of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people and it reflects Britain’s comparatively low recent numbers.

With 25 cases per 100,000, Britain has had a lower infection rate in recent weeks than most European countries including Ireland and it tests a greater proportion of its population than most – again including Ireland. Health secretary Matt Hancock on Thursday contrasted Britain’s performance with that of its neighbours.

“In other European countries we’re seeing this big second spike. Here, the cases are broadly flat, partly because of our test-and-trace system working so effectively, partly because of the quarantine and social distancing policies,” he told the BBC.

Johnson’s problem

After a disastrous few months that saw Britain suffer more deaths from coronavirus than any other European country, August brought good news on the economic front too. Retail sales rebounded after the lockdown and millions of people took advantage of chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme offering £10 off restaurant meals.

A succession of policy U-turns and a fiasco over GSCE and A-level results unnerved Conservative backbenchers. But Boris Johnson’s government remained ahead of Labour in most polls as measures like quarantine and local lockdowns were popular – except among those affected by them.

Johnson’s problem is that many of those affected by local lockdowns are in Conservative-held constituencies, some of them in parts of the Midlands and the north of England Johnson captured in last December’s general election. Nowhere has felt the impact more cruelly than Trafford in Greater Manchester, which was due to have lockdown restrictions lifted this week but saw them left in place in a last-minute U-turn.

“I had constituents yesterday saying that they had come home to relatives who were in tears because they weren’t going to see their children or grandchildren when they thought that that was going to be allowed under the release of the restrictions,” said local MP Graham Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers.

Like many Conservative MPs, Brady is also impatient with the government over its failure to persuade more people to go back to work in offices. Conservatives fear that if too many people continue to work from home, businesses that rely on commuters and office workers will disappear, adding to unemployment as the government’s furlough scheme is about to end.

Meanwhile, new data published on Thursday suggest that Britain’s coronavirus numbers are heading in the same direction as the rest of Europe’s. Some 6,732 people newly tested positive for Covid-19 in England between August 20th and 26th, up 6 per cent on the previous week and the highest weekly number since the end of May. 

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