Don’t Build Fortress Britain

25 January 2021. Updated 26 January 2021.

by Kathrine Jebsen Moore

Dear Priti Patel,

I sympathise with your idea of looking to Australia and New Zealand for inspiration. They have managed to practically eliminate the virus by shutting themselves off from the rest of the world, only allowing natives to return, and when they do, imprisoning them in ‘quarantine hotels’. Britain looks set to achieve, finally, a pandemic success, rolling out the vaccine faster than any other European country. This is of course good news. For most Britons, pulling up the drawbridge is surely a logical next step as life gradually returns to normal. After all, holidays are all but illegal at the moment, so why shouldn’t those who do wish to return from abroad, or indeed venture here, be faced with an extra barrier? The number of visitors is currently around 10,000 a day and it’s hoped that the threat of an enforced quarantine in cheap hotels will get the numbers down. All arrivals are currently expected to quarantine, but with no real way of ensuring that everyone does. That means the risk of new strains of coronavirus arriving with them is still real.

But have a thought for those of us with families divided between different countries. This news feels like yet another blow to our plans to being able to see our family overseas this year. To explain: I arrived in the UK more than 20 years ago as a student. I’m from Norway, which is only a short flight across the North Sea. I’ve settled with my English husband in Scotland, and travelling to Oslo from here is just 20 minutes longer on a plane than flying to London. Pre-pandemic, all our holidays were spent in Norway. We own a house there, in a little town on the Oslo Fjord coast, where our four children have friends, see family, and immerse themselves in Norwegian life. This means skiing in the winter, and swimming and enjoying the warm weather in the summer. My parents have been very grateful that, despite us living abroad, they have seen their grandchildren almost as much as other grandparents whose children reside in the same country.

But that was before the pandemic. Although we managed to get to Norway last summer, driving through Europe with our two dogs, the virus at a low ebb, I did worry what next winter would bring. And tougher it got. There are stricter measures, with mandatory testing for arrivals in Norway, and even closed borders at Christmas, thanks to the new British variant. Now, even as the borders have opened, only Norwegian citizens and their families are allowed to enter. Thankfully, I have kept my Norwegian passport, and my family are allowed to come with me. But now we not only face restrictions as we arrive, in the form of mandatory testing and quarantine, but potentially even tougher ones when we return.

A quarantine hotel might sound fine on paper. And logical. Restrain new arrivals so they are guaranteed not to mix in the community, and only release them into the wild if they continue to test negative. But the fact remains that new strains can emerge within our borders, even so. But I get it. If there is a travel ban for Brits, surely those lucky few who somehow manage to escape and want to return should be expected to face the consequences. Then again, we’re not wanting to jet off to Marbella to laze around on a beach – not that there’s anything wrong with that, and I’d jump at the chance. My children are simply desperate to see their family: grandparents, five cousins, uncles, aunts, and their Norwegian friends. My three-year-old has been asking, every day since September, to go to the “Norway house to see Mommo and Pappa”. He’s only three, and doesn’t understand about lockdown or Covid. Although he knows that the “plane is broken and needs to be fixed”, as we keep telling him. At Christmas, we told him that the plane was finally working again, and he got excited. When we were on our way to the airport, with our car packed with luggage bursting with warm clothes and presents, we had to turn around and tell him that unfortunately the plane couldn’t take off after all. But very soon, we would go.

Just when we thought there might be a way for us to go at Easter, Priti Patel announced her new plans. Fingers crossed Norway won’t turn into a coronavirus hotspot, and perhaps we’ll be spared the dreaded quarantine hotel. Staying in a hotel for 10 days might be fine if you’re a couple or a single person returning from abroad. Ten days to get on with emails, work, perhaps read some books, stay in touch with friends over Skype, do some yoga on the floor, sleep. If I didn’t have four children, it sounds quite nice. I’d bring lots of yarn and knit myself a jumper or two in that time, and treat it as an extra holiday.But with four children? It’s cruel and it sounds unbearable for the parents. I’m not willing to let my children be confined to a small space as if they are prisoners – as if they’re being made to pay for the audacity of travelling to see their beloved grandparents.

But then, the concerns of children have not been at the centre of the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Time and again, we see that children’s needs for a social life, education and other basics have been temporarily discarded in the quest to quell a virus that largely doesn’t affect them. Alarming reports of an explosion in head traumas, a surge in mental health issues like eating disorders, and a staggering widening of the attainment gap and diminished opportunities in their futures are already the side effects of shutting down most of society for at least a year, possibly longer.

A friend remarked that a year isn’t a long time for the average adult, but for a child, or an elderly person, it can make all the difference. What a child learns in a year is remarkable. How much they develop can be astonishing. Not only do they grow taller, they mature at a rapid rate. Unfortunately, the same can be said in reverse for an old person. One year, they’re fit and healthy, and the next, in visible decline. My parents will, knock on wood, still be sprightly and unchanged when we next see them. Their grandchildren will have developed, but I hope my youngest will still remember them. He has stopped asking about them every day now.

Although borders are generally a good thing, they should never keep families apart. I hope that the British Government will think of families like ours when it drafts its new plans. I had no idea that living across the North Sea would mean I couldn’t nip back whenever I wanted to. Norway and the UK are close geographically and culturally. There will be families affected even more harshly than ours – families where one parent lives abroad, for example, and has to commute every few weeks or months in order to keep in touch with their children. With modern travel being as easy as it has been, this used to be a workable option for some. Now it’s getting harder and harder. There will be families where grandparents have not yet seen their new grandchild and now are left wondering if they will before the baby is a toddler. I get that watertight borders might be a tempting idea. But don’t forget the children who didn’t have a choice about where their family lives, and who, on top of all the other sacrifices they’re having to make, should not be cut off from their loved ones.

Kathrine Jebsen Moore is a freelance writer in Edinburgh. She regularly contributes to Quillette, where she covered the culture wars in the knitting community, and has also written for the Spectator, Spiked and New Discourses.

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