Former British Airways boss Willie Walsh, who now leads airline industry body IATA, told BBC Radio 4 last week: “It’s clear that these measures have been completely ineffective in the past but impose huge hardship on people who are trying to connect with family and friends and clearly massive financial damage to the tourism and airline industry.”
The omicron variant, which appears to be more virulent even than delta, although seemingly much milder, will become the dominant strain of Covid in the UK “within weeks”, according to Professor Paul Hunter, from the school of medicine at the University of East Anglia. He told BBC on Monday: “Once the infection is spreading within a country, then border restrictions don’t really add anything. We’ve known that long before Covid. This has been knowledge that we’ve had for decades, if not centuries, to be honest.”
In its repeated use of blunt, damaging restrictions on the public that categorically doesn’t solve the problem in the first place, the Government is playing an elaborate, risky game of the boy who cried wolf. Beyond Covid, and should a pathogen come along that really does warrant drastic action, our leaders will surely struggle to get their guidance taken seriously.
The cost to the UK’s economy
Nearly 10 per cent of the UK’s GDP consists of tourism, and right up until the pandemic hit it represented our fastest-growing sector for employment, accounting for nearly 12 per cent of all jobs, having taken over from the financial services (8.9%) and banking (3.4%) in 2010.
Yet no industry can count more casualties as a result of Covid-related restrictions. When you take into account all the hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and pubs that serve visitors both domestic and international, hospitality employees made up 25 per cent of all furloughed workers in Britain last year.
Following a summer of reopenings, things were finally looking up as the busy festive period approached. Now, irrespective of the fact more than 80 per cent of us have been fully vaccinated and that hospitalisations remain reassuringly low, panic over omicron has, according to Lo Bue, “eradicated confidence and sent the hospitality industry back to the starting blocks… again.”
And for what? Even former Prime Minister Theresa May, who always liked to play it safe, said to the House of Commons on Monday: “The early indications of omicron are that it is more transmissible but potentially leads to less serious illness than other variants. I understand that would be the normal progress of a virus. Variants will continue to appear year after year.
“When is the Government going to accept that learning to live with Covid, which we will all have to do, means we will almost certainly have an annual vaccine and that we cannot respond to new variants by stopping and starting sectors of our economy, which leads to businesses going under and jobs being lost?”
The damage is already being done. With curbs on inbound visitors and Christmas parties being cancelled left, right and centre, the number of people dining out across Britain has fallen to the lowest level since the reopening of indoor hospitality, according to restaurant industry figures, and UK insolvencies jumped more than 30 per cent in the last quarter, reports chartered accountants UHY Hacker Young.
The cost to developing nations
Perhaps the most loathsome aspect of the West’s response to this latest variant has been to heap punishment upon the people of South Africa and Botswana, whose scientists found it.
David Frost, CEO of SATSA, which represents South Africa’s tourism industry, tells Telegraph Travel: “We’ve seen millions of holidays cancelled as we approach the all-important Christmas period. The 1.5 million South Africans who rely on tourism for their livelihood saw the sector lose £44 million in the first 48 hours of the travel ban, which could rise to £1.2 billion if it continues.
“The impact of these ill-advised travel bans is catastrophic for an industry that has already been battling to survive for the past 20 months. Essentially, South Africa and its tourism sector is being punished for its advanced genomic sequencing and its transparency.”
Frost surmises: “We can only hope that science will prevail and that countries will reverse the travel bans shortly. The World Health Organization and scientists continue to highlight that travel bans are not an effective measure to deal with the spread of Covid. What has happened in effect is that the world has shot the messenger for doing its job well.”
Professor Paul Hunter concurs, adding: “One of the problems with travel restrictions like this is that it then de-motivates other countries to actually be open about their own situations for fear of what they would see as economic sanctions.”
Chris McIntyre, Managing Director of Expert Africa, tells us: “Our partners in Africa are aghast at what has happened. Instead of the jingoistic response of pulling up Britain’s drawbridge, the UK Government needs to join the dots. We already have hundreds of cases of Omicron in the UK, and it is these which will primarily drive community transmission. Using targeted testing for incoming travellers to catch those cases which might be imported makes sense, but a travel ban with quarantine is an unnecessary and very damaging over-reaction.
“The dearth of tourism is hitting some of the poorest communities around the globe, and all because our Governments aren’t able to explain the science behind keeping the borders open to their voters.”
Still, there is no sign of sense prevailing. Despite the omicron variant having been found in more than 40 countries, including the US, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Germany, Israel and Australia, most countries’ travel restrictions – including Britain’s – focus solely on Africa.
These travel bans were “meant always as a time-limited measure”, one senior EU official informed Reuters on Monday (we’ve heard that one before), adding, however, that there was no plan at the moment to lift them: “We are not yet working in that direction.”
The UK, meanwhile, has just added Nigeria to its red list; a move the Nigerian high commissioner Sarafa Tunji Isola told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday amounted to “travel apartheid”. You can see why. Nigeria has thus far reported three omicron cases, compared to more than 300 in the UK, 38 in Portugal, and 32 in Denmark.
James Wilson, Marketing Director at Botswana-owned Desert & Delta Safaris, tells Telegraph Travel: “Tourism in Botswana accounts for over 15 per cent of our GDP and this crisis brought the travel and tourism sector to its knees. We have received over half a million pounds in cancellations for the Christmas and New Year period and received a number of cancellation requests for 2022 as the media and Government spread fear and gloom amongst the people.
“Half of our management in the camps are women and when one considers the families and children of staff employed within our company, this goes beyond 400 people but the livelihoods of thousands of citizens.
He adds: “Evidence supported by scientists and as stated by President of Botswana Dr Masisi clearly points to the fact that those who tested positive for the new variant had travelled from overseas. indicating that it is most likely the variant did not originate in Southern Africa, but was rather discovered here. This is partly due to the very sophisticated laboratories in South Africa that have been tirelessly working with WHO and the global community in developing research to help control the pandemic. If the variant was discovered in the USA or Europe would the UK have immediately added them to the red-list?”