There was a time when those travelling to Dublin or Belfast were treated equally badly in Heathrow or in any British ‘mainland’ departure point. All travellers were downgraded to being a threat. Everyone going to the island was treated with equal suspicion. Much the same happened in the US after 9/11. The terrorists know that the threat of terror always costs society more than the terror itself. Threat is the real terror. Threat leverages a cognitive bias. Humans are very poorly equipped to deal with perceived fears.
Several polls and actuarial studies describe one classic bias. It seems that many people still believe it is safer to drive than to fly. The actual statistics show that it’s about 200 times more likely for a traveler to die in a traffic accident. [In the UK in 2004, road traffic risk was 1:17,655 whereas aviation related risks were 1:3,530,815 – table here.]
With respect to internal security in 1970’s Britain, it seemed that prevention was considered a better policy than remediation. The travelling public accepted it to some degree because they considered it, to some degree, reassuring. That’s the problem with soft targets. Society has to work hard to protect them.
You’d think the same would apply to any threat. A disease that kills thirty or ten thousand in care homes is surely worse for society than a bomb that takes out an airplane.
I flew into the UK well over seven hundred times in the last two decades and I can’t complain about the arrivals procedures. I was stopped on entry from Ireland no more than a handful of times. However there is one particular Sunday evening that I recall as strange. It was eight years after the Good Friday Agreement but crucially, just a few after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, the consequences of which were colouring security policies everywhere.
‘Which flight?’ asked one of two uniformed immigration officers, standing and checking arrivals in the corridor between the plane and baggage hall.
‘Was that the start of your journey?’
‘How long will you stay in the UK?’
‘Five nights this time’
‘May I see some ID?’
‘Here’s my passport.’
Damn, I thought, as I saw a couple of stickers on the back cover. They were company stickers designed to help keep our employees in a group going through immigration into Algeria. I had forgotten I was carrying what I termed my ‘Muslim’ passport. I would have had two passports at the time and I had grabbed the ‘wrong’ one. European governments used to issue business passports which served multiple purposes but for people working like us, it allowed us work continuously. We’d typically carry one passport with a work permit for the current country while the second could be in another embassy getting a visa and work permit for another country. So I might have been in the US or France while the second ‘business’ passport was in an Algerian or Indonesian embassy getting a visa before an upcoming trip.
‘Thank you Simon. You travel a lot?’
‘My colleague will have some additional questions. Please stand aside and wait for him to come over.’
I didn’t have long to wait.
‘Where are you coming from?’ asked a grey suited immigration official.
‘How long will you stay in the UK?’ he continued, flicking through my extra thick passport, stiffened with the glue of visas and thoroughly stamped.
‘Five nights this time.’
‘You travel a lot for business?’
His diagonally striped tie and white shirt were grubbier than you’d expect after just one long day in the airport.
‘When did you last visit Pakistan?’
‘Eight years ago.’
‘Are you still in contact with anyone in Pakistan?’
‘Text messages or occasional phone call.’
‘How often would you say you contact someone in Pakistan?’
‘It depends. I had an email over the weekend from Islamabad after the earthquake then I texted and called to make sure my colleague was OK in his hotel’.
His body was heavyset and thickened by a lack of physical exercise.
‘Thank you, Simon. When did you last visit Indonesia?’
‘A few months ago.’
‘Are you still in contact with anyone in Indonesia?’
‘We also have a phone call every weekday morning.’
His laced black shoes had never been polished and one had a deep scratch.
‘I see. When did you last visit Egypt?’
‘A few years ago.’
‘Are you still in contact with anyone in Egypt?’
‘How often would you say you contact someone in Egypt?
‘Just a couple of project emails each month.’
His hair needed some attention.
‘I see you’ve been to Jordan recently, Simon?’
‘Yes, I attended a business meeting there for a couple of days.’
There was a faint odour of sweat.
‘How long were you in the UAE?’
‘A few business trips, each a couple of days.’
I thought I could smell tobacco smoke.
‘Why were you in Turkey, Simon?’
‘There were a couple of trips for business, a few days each. Always in Istanbul.’
‘Are you still in contact with anyone in Turkey?’
I wondered about the spot on his tie. Mustard perhaps?
‘Simon, when were you last in Algeria?’
‘Earlier this month.’
‘It seems you go there a lot?’
‘Not a lot these days, maybe twice a year.’
‘Are you still in contact with anyone in Algeria?’
‘Yes, several times a day by email and phone.’
‘And why Tunisia, Simon?’
‘A conference last year.’
‘What do you do, Simon?’
‘I’m a geophysicist, Bill. Here’s a business card and that’s my employer’s name on the back cover.’ I said pointing to my passport.
There was a flash of annoyance. Bill’s right hand flipped his security badge to hide the identity it had revealed.
‘Thank you. Enjoy your visit’ he said rather sternly, contradicting the look that had softened as handed back my passport and business card. I wondered about the working conditions in Heathrow for suit-and-tie people like Bill.
Sorry for sharing five tedious minutes from my life, shared in a tedious fashion. I wanted to make the point that I had no real problem with being checked like this. I could be checked because my passport carried all of the visa information that exposed those activities recorded therein. Which is to say that very little was really being checked. The other passport told of further travel though there was no record of the European destinations. I suppose I was a member of the kinetic elite whose peripateticism is now pandemic curtailed.
My tediously made point is that we have capacity to check. I couldn’t have gone to any of those countries, nor would I have wanted to, without a health clearance certificate in the form of the WHO Carte Jaune that records our vaccinations and a host of other details.
My fertile imagination sees potential for a big problem since we are not checking for Covid disease with the same diligence as for terror. Statistics tell us that we should. This is a case where prevention is cheaper than remediation. Over 700,000 people have died, the global trajectory is still rising and people (the carriers) are travelling in increasing numbers. As the title said in the first episode of Game of Thrones ‘Winter Is Coming’.
I’ve had the Irish Covid Tracker app on my phone for about a month though it’s not really a tracker. I carry it as an exposure meter. I don’t know if I have been exposed but I rely on the app to alert me if I am exposed to someone who is positive and who also has the app. However, only 1.5 million people have registered and may be too few. It seems that 60% of the population is the minimum number for sufficient statistics to be effective for exposure monitoring.
I guess there are myriad reasons why this is not a Europe-wide initiative. We should learn for the next time.
Meantime, I am asserting I remain healthy. For folk over a certain age, I don’t imagine there will be an immune response to vaccination. So I don’t expect there will ever be an effective immunity certification process for Covid. Minimising contact remains the most effective mitigation.
It’s sad to see that most politicians are more concerned about not being blamed for anything and getting their “economies” moving again, than they are about improving the processes of dealing with the pandemic. I’d like to see leaders take real responsibility for the people of their countries, and true leadership must include admitting some things aren’t going as well as they could be and need to improve.