90 excruciating seconds at the Transport Select Committee

Simon Calder
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“Minister, we haven’t got much time, so some pithy answers please, rather than vacuous, long-winded ones.”

The speaker was Karl McCartney, the Conservative MP for Lincoln. He was addressing his parliamentary colleague, Kelly Tolhurst.

Ms Tolhurst is the aviation minister, and she was answering questions during Wednesday’s hearing of the Transport Select Committee.

MPs on the committee are taking evidence about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the travel industry.

As you will know, one of the key topics is the impending quarantine for anyone arriving in the UK.

The government will bring in 14 days of mandatory self-isolation for inbound travellers early in June. It says: “Now that domestic transmission within the UK is coming under control, and other countries begin to lift lockdown measures, it is the right time to prepare new measures at the border.”

Whether by accident or design, the quarantine policy has potential to cause even more damage than the immense harm already wrought upon the UK travel industry by the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost no one is going to want to travel to Britain with the prospect of spending the next two weeks unable to venture outside. That includes those of us who are desperate for a holiday abroad but cannot contemplate 14 days of self-isolation at the end of it.

We all hope that the spread of Covid-19 will remain under control. It is a safe bet that other countries will be lifting lockdown measures for many months. So I predict the justification for quarantine will prevail for the rest of the year.

Given the imminent deployment of an unprecedented measure that looks about three months too late, and will destroy jobs in every UK airline and holiday company, it was unsurprising that MPs wanted answers from the minister about quarantine: why, when, how and, crucially, what needs to change for the travel-crushing measure to be lifted?

The unfortunate Ms Tolhurst could tell them nothing, Yet she attempted valiantly to dress up that shortcoming with an astonishing parade of words devoid of meaning.

“We will work hard to make sure we are clear about how we will work with the industry in order get that recovery that is required,” she flannelled.

It led to an excruciating 90-second exchange between Mr McCartney and his fellow Tory.

“Are you going to reconsider the 14-day period?” he asks.

“So obviously that’s something that is being led by the Home Office, so obviously these things are under review,” replies the minister.

“So that’s a ‘no’,” he concludes – and asks about arrivals to the UK who will be exempt from the need to go home and stay there.

“So obviously in relation to the exemptions, the exemption lists are being looked and finalised, and obviously – ”

“Yes or no,” demands Mr McCartney.

“Well, I haven’t – we haven’t – got the full lists, that’s work that’s been ongoing, around what would be on the exemption lists and ultimately, as the DfT I’ve been very focused on making sure that …”

As the unfortunate minister witters on, the exchange becomes even more heated before Mr McCartney hands back to the chair.

Kelly Tolhurst deserves sympathy. The MPs on the transport committee know that, collectively, many tens of thousands of their constituents depend on travel for their livelihoods.

Many more of their voters were booked to go on holiday in mid-June, and were desperate to know whether a condition of their annual getaway would be remaining at home for a fortnight on their return.

All that the mystified MPs knew about the quarantine policy had been gleaned from briefings and counter-briefings by No 10 and the Department for Transport.

In an all-too-public forum, the hapless junior minister was obliged to to defend a plan that her department and the travel industry sees as intensely destructive.

Michael O’Leary of Ryanair describes quarantine as “absolutely bonkers,” and other chief executives are even less complimentary.

No wonder the aviation minister opted, to the considerable exasperation of her fellow MPs, for vacuous, long-winded answers. At a time when everyone needs clarity, all she could offer was meaningless prevarication. But it wasn’t her fault.

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