Blog: When will politicians consider whether a form of house arrest is necessary to protect us from coronavirus?

Arriving passengers at Jersey airport are directed to coronavirus testing Credit: ITV Channel TV

It is now one month since Jersey opened its border, giving people arriving the choice of a coronavirus test to avoid having to spend two weeks in quarantine. In Guernsey the border remains closed apart from the air bridge to the Isle of Man though there are now plans to slowly start reopening again.

Decisions about restarting travel in both Bailiwicks have proved controversial with passions on both sides of the debate from those who want to keep borders closed and those who see the absence of travel as a necessary price to stay safe.

We have now passed the initial panic reaction to coronavirus when so many parts of ordinary life were closed down. But at what point do we move from that response to a new phase where we accept the fact that, as islands, Bailiwicks, nations, continents, we need to find new ways of living with the virus?

I have deliberately delayed writing this blog because I feel so closely involved in what I am writing because of my own circumstances. I couldn’t have written my thoughts a week ago because I was too upset by what had happened to me and I didn’t want to write an angry whinge. What I wanted to do was write something to provoke debate about where we go from here.

So this is the bit where I declare my own personal interest in the issue. I still consider myself very new to the Channel Islands and such make regular visits back to the UK where my partner lives along with my family and friends. Before coronavirus I would make monthly visits back there each month and he would visit here too.

All that ended in March and for five months I have endured an enforced separation from him. I’m not alone in this. I don’t say it for any more sympathy than anyone else who is missing a loved one. It’s just my personal circumstance. I was resigned to us being separated for many more months than this, until Jersey announced it was reopening the border in July. The possibility of travel once again surprised and delighted me. I booked tickets for my partner and he arrived earlier this month. We had a list of our favourite places we wanted to visit for food, beaches we hoped to spend time sitting on, all the sorts of things I have the privilege of enjoying here that I take joy in sharing with him when he is able to visit.

Enjoying a walk on the beach with my partner Lloyd on a previous visit Credit: James Webster

Two days after his arrival a phone call ripped all those plans away. Someone sitting within two rows of him had tested positive for coronavirus and he must now spend the rest of his time here in isolation. I was no longer allowed to take him out. After five months of only seeing him through a camera screen he was now effectively under house arrest. In fact, a search on Google demonstrated that he would actually have more freedom if he was under house arrest. He’d be able to go out to work or school for instance.

We don’t know how close the infected Passenger X was sitting. They could have been next to him. They could have been two full rows away. Passenger X had no symptoms. They didn’t know they had the virus. What was certain is my partner had tested negative but the rules mean he was losing his liberty for the rest of his week in Jersey. He along with around 30 other passengers would be able to see Jersey out of their windows but be unable to go out and enjoy it .

I don’t mind admitting I was fairly inconsolable. It all just felt so unfair. Hadn’t we both suffered enough and now this? With my sensible head on, why should we be any different? It was just absolutely terrible bad luck. At the time of writing, more than 20,000 passengers have arrived in Jersey. Only 12 of those have tested positive for coronavirus – all of them asymptomatic when they arrived.

Later that evening I tweeted what I knew. Even at a time of sadness, the journalistic instinct kicks in. Knowing that coronavirus figures are not released at the weekend I knew people would be interested to know that at least one more positive case had been detected at the border.

But the replies to my tweet showed the passion which the issue of even having the borders open provokes in some people. It feels as divisive an issue as Brexit with passionate Isolationists and equally passionate Reopeners.

Aside from the abuse I got from people who thought I was claiming the right to be exempt from the rules because I’m on TV (I wasn't by the way) I was surprised by how many people were then getting in touch with me to say that I should be isolating too because my partner was staying with me.

For the avoidance of doubt, no I shouldn’t. At least not according the Government of Jersey guidance. I had not been in touch with anyone who had tested positive therefore I was clear to go out and about, but that didn’t stop people accusing me of flouting the rules. Either this is a failure of Government communications for not ensuring people understand the rules, or there are a lot of people who know what they think the rules SHOULD be and don’t mind telling you.

So my first observation is that we have people criticising others for not following non-existent rules based on their own mistaken reading of the rules themselves. Has the government done enough to communicate how the border testing works?

My second observation comes from the recent figures from the border arrivals testing which states that there has been no community transmission of coronavirus from people arriving at the border. This shows that no infected person on the plane has passed on the virus to people sitting near them on the plane.

There will be those who question, in those circumstances, whether what amounts to a form of house arrest is actually a proportionate response for all those who have tested negative but were simply sitting close to someone else who tested positive. There will also be those who still believe that everyone should have to isolate for two weeks regardless of testing.

What I’m interested in is at what point politicians will consider whether there are more nuanced ways of preventing any possible community transmission? If the aim of preventative isolation is to limit contacts with other people then what would be to stop authorities drawing up a list of dos and don’ts which still allow some freedom? Could they ban people from indoor public spaces like shops, bars, restaurants, public transport and St Helier town centre, but allow people to visit remote beaches and country lanes if they only interact with the person they have come to visit. There would be little chance of transmitting the virus they most likely do not have anyway. Again – it is a debate that will polarise opinion but is it a debate that needs to be had?

And my third observation is what impression are people who have travelled to Jersey left with when they are locked up for a week, only being freed to fly home? This isn’t an issue for my partner. He comes here because I’m here and will continue to do so. But the whole point of opening the border is to try to bring in enough trade to save businesses which could collapse without visitors to spend their holiday money.

If you had travelled over on a holiday and been locked up for a week, would you come back? I wouldn’t. Once bitten – twice shy. And I’d tell my friends not to bother – why would you risk it? You could spend money on flights, travel there, see none of the beautiful island you hoped to spend a week sightseeing around and then fly home.

Could the government be doing more to persuade the small number of unlucky travellers to return by refunding their flights and hotel costs? Could they send isolating holidaymakers away with a voucher by way of apology for the bad luck they have suffered in losing their trip only through the fault of the border testing system? It may encourage them to return and spend their money on a different occasion instead of leaving them feeling cheated out of a week of Channel Island sunshine.

Making decisions on opening the border is not easy. Experts describe it as a balancing act between economic and health needs. Only in the last few days we have heard reports the UK might have to shut pubs to allow schools to reopen. The most important factor has to be preventing people losing their lives to this deadly disease which has robbed us all of so much.

I was prompted to write this because of my own personal experience. It isn’t my job to provide answers but I hope I’ve been able to provoke debate on what questions our politicians, and by extension islanders, may need to have in the coming months.