Comment

British travel curbs on France are idiotic but Macron's cheap populism is just as bad

Both countries are guilty of reciprocal action, and both are basket cases when it comes to their handling of Covid

Britain and France are behaving as fatuously as each other. Common sense has gone out of the window. 

The number of circulating Covid-19 infections in the UK as of yesterday was 18.5 per 100,000 based on a 14-day cumulative total, assuming that the figures are accurate, which is patently not the case. In France the figure is scarcely different at 32.1. 

For this sliver of alleged margin, the British government has caused chaos for some 500,000 Britons currently in France, who cannot return in time to avoid the quarantine because there are not enough trains, ferries, or flights. They will have to isolate on their return, and some will not be able to work – again.

The sledgehammer has come down with just two or three weeks left to go for France’s full holiday season. The policy does not distinguish between regions, as if travellers are too stupid to understand the difference between Marseilles and the pristine Perigord. There is not a single Covid patient right now in the Bergerac district hospital near my farm in the region.

This zero-tolerance absolutism is coming from the same government that allowed passengers to pour in from Milan, Madrid, Paris, and other known Covid hotpots with no controls at the height of the storm in early March, when British state policy was to let the virus run wild.

Last night’s quarantine decision might just have made sense if the French authorities were being careless but they are if anything being even stricter than their British counterparts. Premier Jean Castex has launched his own Albigensian Crusade against the virus, mandating masks outdoors, a policy that is going down badly it has to be said. The French can hardly forget that their government insisted five months ago that masks were useless even indoors.

Yet the French riposte to this British perfidy is no better. President Emmanuel Macron has pursued a tit-for-tat strategy at previous stages of the pandemic. As I write, the French media report that he will retaliate again.

There we have in a nutshell the character of this grandstander-in-chief, masquerading as a Cartesian rationalist and the guardian of rules-based practice. Mr Macron projects himself globally as the anti-populist – though he fought the first round of the 2017 election with cynical opportunism as an insurgent – but is himself resorting to cheap, gesture politics without scientific justification.  

The chief victims of this Macronian pettiness are the 300,000 French citizens living in the UK who can no longer return home except at great inconvenience, and large numbers of French tourists currently enjoying the depressed pound or brushing up their spoken English.

Mr Macron has become an erratic figure on the world stage, meddling in the internal affairs of Lebanon with support for one ethno-sectarian group against another, and pushing Nato towards its final crisis by deploying the French navy against Turkish forces in Libyan waters and in the Eastern Mediterranean.  

It is not that he is wrong about the Erdogan regime but rather that he acts impetuously and unilaterally, driven by love of global attention. Perhaps he needs it since he suffered a crushing blow in the recent municipal elections, defeated by the ‘green wave’ in half the great cities of France. He may be the defender of the Paris Agreement in the eyes of the world, but the world is easily fooled.

It is this prickly mix of vindictiveness and faux-royalism that makes Mr Macron such a headache in Brexit talks. The word from Brussels is that he wants to toughen the terms, suspecting that Michel Barnier (a closet anglophile) will give away too much to secure a deal. 

The supposed bone of contention is state aid, but Mr Macron knows that the UK is the least inclined among the big West European states to resort to subsidies. It is really a proxy fight about something else. He aims for British legal subordination, that is to say the evisceration of Brexit itself.

But none of this changes my view that Britain’s quarantine rule is ill-judged. The UK government has swung from paralysed fatalism five months ago to something bordering on zero-risk, when such a policy has already been overtaken by events and by advances in science.

As I wrote earlier this week, the picture today is fundamentally different from the picture in March. The fatality rate of ICU patients in the NHS has halved, thanks to dexamethasone, anticoagulants, earlier use of oxygen, and better clinical know-how. 

Recent T cell and modelling studies suggest that large numbers of people may have immunity despite not yielding detectable antibodies, and therefore that society is at less risk. Many of those in face-to-face jobs have already been infected. Mathematically, the exponential transmission rate of March cannot be repeated. 

Yes, the virus remains dangerous and we still do not know the scale of ‘long covid’ pathologies among those who recover. A report published last night by the British Society of Immunology warns of lingering stress for months, with irreversible damage to the lungs, heart, and other organs in the worst cases. “Some patients with mild or asymptomatic disease may suffer long-term inflammatory consequences,” it said. 

But the overall calculus of risk has shifted. Knee-jerk travel restrictions on European states with near-comparable case loads fail the proportionality test. The Government cannot legitimately keep interfering with sections of the economy in this way as it winds down emergency relief.

The accumulated loss in GDP has been 22pc from peak to trough for the UK, and 20pc for France. We are both Covid basket cases. We are now retarding recovery and hurting each other with measures of such thin justification that they  must surely erode social consent for the whole anti-virus strategy.

Honestly gentlemen, Ça suffit!