'Even a campaign with no budget can force a government U-turn' – Behind the Campaign with Quash Quarantine

Paul Charles, chief executive of The PC Agency, discusses the recent campaign to fight the UK Government's coronavirus quarantine plans for the sake of hospitality and travel firms.

(Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
(Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What was the campaign, in a nutshell?

Quash Quarantine is the story of how 500 travel and hospitality firms, and two founders, had zero budget to fight the UK Government on its “unworkable, poorly thought-out and economically damaging” quarantine plans. After COVID-19’s dramatic shutdown of the travel sector, nearly two million UK workers were put on furlough. But it was the Government’s quarantine plans that were “a final nail in the coffin”, and so Quash Quarantine was formed.

How did the idea come into being?

After word was leaked to The Times from Government sources that a mandatory 14-day quarantine was likely to be introduced for anyone entering the UK, including UK citizens returning to the country, senior leaders in the travel sector had little time to group together to fight the planned measures before they would be introduced on 8 June. They would be devastating as bookings would slump further and hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost in the UK alone.

The campaign began with a Bank Holiday weekend phone call on 23 May from George Morgan-Grenville, chief executive of tour operator Red Savannah to me discussing what could be done about it.

The campaign would have clear objectives: to alert media and the public to how unworkable and economically damaging the quarantine measures would be, and to ensure that the measures were diluted at their first review by 29 June and replaced by travel corridors or so-called air bridges.

Briefly describe the campaign planning and process.

George and I agreed that a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel, highlighting the campaign's key messages and signed by as many senior travel and hospitality bosses as possible, would be a good start.

It was signed by 77 travel leaders and distributed to media. This then galvanised the initial group of 77 to keep up the momentum. The group quickly signed up more than 500 business names including Sir Rocco Forte, Jason Atherton and firms including TGI Fridays, Club Med, Kuoni, Travelbag, Abercrombie & Kent, The Savoy, and Mandarin Oriental.

The strategy was to use mainstream media, trade media and social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, to drive engagement, keep the conversation going and attack the Government on the quarantine scheme, including its lack of resources to enforce it. It later turned out that no penalties were issued by police for breaches of quarantine.

We commissioned an opinion poll, carried out pro bono by independent research company AudienceNet, to highlight what the British public really thought about quarantine measures. Eighty-five per cent of the 2,102 adults interviewed said they lacked confidence in the Government successfully implementing the quarantine measures.

How did you measure the results?

The month-long campaign achieved 12 front pages in the UK and 312 pieces of international broadcast, print and online coverage. Even The Sunday Times opinion leader, two weeks running, described the quarantine as “daft” and “hare-brained”. MPs including Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, publicly supported the campaign via Twitter.

But the best result was the abandoning of blanket quarantine measures by the Government, announced on 26 June. We had quashed quarantine convincingly, and on a pro-bono basis, against a multimillion-pound Government communications campaign.

What’s the biggest lesson you took away from the campaign?

That even a campaign with no budget can force a Government U-turn. Quarantine was the shortest-lived policy in history.

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