90 excruciating seconds at the Transport Select Committee

“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.

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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 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 with the potential to destroy every UK airline and holiday company, it was unsurprising that MPs wanted answers from the minister about quarantine: when it will start, how it will work and – crucially – what needs to change for the travel-crushing measure to be lifted.

I have watched the excruciating 90-second exchange between Mr McCartney and his fellow Tory several times.

“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,” replied the minister.

“So that’s a ‘no’,” he concludes – and asks about arrivals to the UK who would 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,” demanded 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 wittered on, the exchange became even more heated before Mr McCartney handed 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 are booked to go on holiday as early as 12 June, the date Tui plans to re-start departures. And yet they have no way of knowing whether a condition of their annual holiday will be sitting inside for a fortnight on returning home.

All that you, me and the mystified MPs know about the quarantine policy we glean 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 quarantine policy that her department and almost anyone connected with travel thinks, in the words of Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, is both intensely destructive and “absolutely bonkers” (a fellow airline chief executive used a rather stronger term in private).

No wonder Kelly Tolhurst’s bluster exasperated her fellow MPs with vacuous, long-winded answers. At a time when everyone needs clarity, all she could honestly offer was meaningless prevarication. But it wasn’t her fault.

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