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PETER HITCHENS: Were holiday-wrecking quarantines worth it? Even the Government haven’t a clue! 

As the Government wrecks another few thousand holidays with sudden quarantine, you might assume that it takes this sort of thing seriously, and keeps close track of it.

After all, you don’t force people to abandon holidays they have saved up for all year, and stampede them into dashing for the nearest port or airport, or expect them to spend money they haven’t got on cruelly inflated ticket prices so they can meet a 4am deadline, just on a whim, do you?

You don’t lightly demand that, if they miss that deadline, they remain under house arrest for 14 days, unable to go to work, do you? 

Surely you do those things because you genuinely believe that there is a grave danger if people remain in the affected countries, which must be severely contained? I thought so too. But is it so? 

Nearly a month after a last-minute announcement on July 25 smashed up tens of thousands of Spanish holidays, I asked Matt Hancock’s Health Department some simple questions. I began this process last Monday morning:

‘How many of the UK travellers arriving from Spain after the introduction of the July 25 quarantine subsequently tested positive for Covid-19, how many of them were hospitalised, how many have recovered and (if applicable) how many died?’

Well, if they know the answers, they are not telling. So I will say here that either they don’t know or don’t really care, in which case how dare they muck people’s lives up in this way? 

Or are they embarrassed to reveal the answer because it shows that they made a fuss about nothing and the truth makes them look foolish?

The first response, as almost always with government departments, was an attempt to pass the buck (that’s why I start asking questions on Mondays). Perhaps I should try Public Health England, said a Health Department official.

Even I knew by then that PHE was about to be abolished, but I asked them anyway. They said they would try to find out, until they suddenly changed their mind and said I should ask… the Health Department. So it was back to them.

And in response to my clear and specific queries (which they already knew), they insultingly sent a useless ‘background’ explanation of the quarantine policy, which did not even pretend to be an answer. 

Charitably, I behaved as if this might be a mistake, and asked them if they had accidentally left the figures out of the email. 

No, that’s your lot, they replied. I appealed again, and received a silence as deep and clammy as the grave.

Well, it’s not personal. My brief holiday abroad was not affected by any such state-created panic.

I’m used to being treated with contempt by insolent officialdom, all over the world. I don’t take it personally because they don’t mean it personally. It is what despotisms are like, and it always will be. The individual counts for nothing against the state and don’t you forget it. Go home and stay there till we tell you that you can come out.

But I still treasure a dying belief that this country is different. Here, I like to tell myself, we have an independent, honest Civil Service. Here we have a Government that is – in theory – answerable to a free Parliament and restrained by a strong, free press.

But all this has gone, in the space of a few fear-dominated weeks. So they can mess up your life without consequences, and they no longer worry about being held to account for it.

This is what makes this whole business so sinister and dark, the way in which an over-hyped virus is being used to gather unaccountable power in too few hands.

Why does everyone miss the single most important point about the exam crisis? None of it would have happened if the Government had not, quite needlessly, closed the schools.

One of this Government’s most lasting achievements will be the permanent damage they have done to our railways.

Trains were just beginning to recover from the violent destruction wreaked on them 60 years ago by Transport Minister Ernest Marples (who ended his career by skipping the country, by train, to avoid the taxman).

Then our Prime Minister, in a self-harming moment worthy of Gerald Ratner, told everyone that it was far too dangerous to travel by train. Passenger numbers, already shrivelled by the shutdown of the economy, collapsed.

The trains were effectively renationalised and have only been saved from bankruptcy by sacks of funny money, plucked from Rishi Sunak’s increasingly withered magic money tree. 

Now that is running out. Services are just going to have to be cut, along with jobs. We’ll all have to travel on terrifyingly dangerous ‘smart’ motorways instead.

Yet as usual, the panic is based on bilge and tripe. The Rail Safety and Standards Board recently concluded after experiments that the risk of infection per passenger journey is only one in 11,000.

The German train operator Deutsche Bahn made a safety survey and found: ‘We see remarkably few infections in trains. No infections occurred in persons on board with a stay of less than ten hours. 

Not a single contact tracing has been identified in Germany and Austria as having been triggered by an infection on the train journey.’

The plight of our railways is just one of a hundred similar needless tragedies. When will we wake up to it?

If you want to ruin any cause, or put people off any product, surely the best way of doing so is to associate it with old people, especially those trying to be hip and sexy?

I always thought that cigarettes could have been discouraged most effectively by a series of spoof advertisements in which old, wrinkled, sagging people tried grotesquely to be alluring, while smoking. 

People fear being old so much more than they fear death, as death is harder to imagine. Whereas old people (and anybody over about 35 is decrepit in the eyes of the young) are still all over the place.

So perhaps the entertainer Madonna, now 62, has unwittingly dealt a mighty blow against marijuana legalisation by posing with a spliff sticking out of her mouth, as she holds a tray of marijuana buds and rolling papers. 

She tries hard to look foxy and wicked as she does this, but succeeds only in looking over-eager and pathetic.

The truth is that there is nothing especially rebellious about smoking dope, which has been wrecking the minds of its users since the early 1960s. The police of most major nations, including the UK, stupidly no longer try to enforce the laws against its use.

Last week, figures for England and Wales showed a near-collapse in the numbers of fines for possession, and of the empty ‘cannabis warnings’ which police officers hand out to pretend they are doing something.

Meanwhile, the miserable absence of research on mental illness and the crime linked to it conceals the terrible damage that this drug is doing to many of its users and to society. And politicians inside all three major parties foolishly seek to use the virus crisis as a pretext to legalise it, in the hope of raising taxes.

I’ve tried using facts and reason against this idiotic policy for years, to little effect. 

But perhaps the sight of a 62-year-old woman with a joint between her lips, pretending to be modish, will finally put an end to marijuana’s cool image. I can only hope.

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