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Latest dumb idea: Let’s shut down travel from the UK

On Friday afternoon, the news broke that Stobart Air, the regional operator responsible for many flights between Ireland and the UK, was going out of business, becoming the highest profile business casualty of the pandemic to date. Naturally, opposition politicians took to the airwaves to blame the Government for not providing enough “supports” for the aviation sector. Then, last night, this:

That clip, incidentally, showcases exactly what has been wrong with the Irish media for a very long time now. The reporter stands in front of a department message, reminding us to stay safe, almost in the pose of a spokeswoman for the department. She airs the report, and two comments – both from people either supportive of the Government, or who feel the Government is not going far enough. The reporter is almost completely integrated, physically, and rhetorically, with the Government’s press machine. The viewer would almost think that there is, and can be, no opposing position. It is no wonder that opinion poll support for the Government’s covid approach is so stubbornly high.

Anyway, that aside, we should talk a little bit about this terrible idea, and let us leave aside the fact that it persecutes the aviation industry, at least at first.

Because, dear reader, even if you genuinely believed that restricting travel from the UK was necessary, and just, and essential for the public safety of the Irish people, you simply could not do it. This country shares a land border with the United Kingdom. A land border, by the way, about which we have just spent five years insisting to all and sundry that it can never, under any circumstances, be closed, or made into a “hard border”. The Good Friday Agreement, we have been told, endlessly, in the context of Brexit, means that unfettered free movement across that border is a holy writ, and something that can never be restricted.

Even if we all changed our minds on that, and decided that the border now needed to be closed, we could not do it anyway. Ireland simply does not have the manpower to police all of the border crossings, and they would need to be policed, 24/7.

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, is part of the UK, and travel to the UK mainland is unrestricted from Belfast.

So, in the very simplest terms: We might be able to shut down air travel directly between the UK and Irish Airports, but we cannot stop travel between the UK and Ireland. It is an impossibility. All that this proposal will do is shift air travel to the Belfast Airport.

That is the pragmatic argument, which even Irish politicians should be able to grasp. But there is also the fact that this is a terrible idea on its face, even if you could carry it out. There is very little evidence that the Delta variant poses any greater threat to public health than the other covid variants already in circulation here.

For example, look at these two charts. UK covid case numbers have, indeed, increased substantially since the beginning of June:

That’s a steep increase, right? But now look at this chart showing Covid hospitalisations over the same period:

To put those numbers in perspective, at the turn of the year during the so-called “second wave”, the UK was seeing a daily average of 3,812 new hospital admissions every day. With the terrifying Delta variant? 120 hospitalisations a day.

Much of that, of course, is the impact of the vaccines, which have worked beyond all expectations in almost every country that has achieved a critical mass of vaccinated people. Some of it, too, is herd immunity. Some of it is that it is presently high summer, and people are outdoors. None of it, not one iota of it, justifies a travel ban to Ireland.

So what’s driving it? Well, in part, it is circular. Media reports as breathlessly criticism-free of the Government like the one above drive a sense that the Delta variant is an existential threat. Governments need to be seen to take action on existential threats. They are still terrified by the ghost of Christmas past, when the media blamed them for the entirely predictable winter surge in Covid 19. This is not rational policymaking, but do-somethingism, so that they can claim to be “protecting the public”.

And of course, we do not have an opposition worthy of the name. I’ll leave you with this: Theresa May, of all people, showing how opposition should be done, and taking up against the Government of her successor, Boris Johnson. Is anything she says wrong?


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