On 22 May, Priti Patel announced controversial plans to introduce a 14-day quarantine for those who enter the UK after 8 June. These plans also include sizeable fines for those who do not comply with the new measures.
However, when the Home Secretary confirmed quarantine plans this week, they were faced with extraordinary backlash. Many argue it is a case of too little, too late. Alternatively, those in the transport and hospitality sector warn of the damage that will be done to their industries.
Meanwhile, some scientists from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) have voiced their concerns that the plans will be ineffectual. They argue the proposed quarantine measures only work in countries with “a significantly higher level of community transmission than ourselves”.
The measures that will be enacted from 8 June will require individuals to take on mandatory self-isolation for two weeks after they enter the country. According to the government, this quarantine period is necessary as it is the incubation period of the virus.
As a result, to ensure individuals can be tracked, upon entering the UK, travellers will be required to fill out a contact locator form. The form will require individuals to supply both their contact details, and travel information. This way, if they contract the virus, or have been in contact with an individual who has contracted the virus, they can be located. According to a report by The Guardian, it is expected that around a fifth of individuals in quarantine will be spot checked.
However, there are exceptions to the new measures. This includes:
The guidance outlines that quarantined individuals are permitted to leave the house to purchase essential food items and medicine. However, they must only do so if they cannot rely on another individual. Those found breaking the mandatory self-isolation will be fined a fixed penalty of £1000. However, individuals may also face prosecution, and potentially an unlimited fine.
The decision to impose the quarantine period for new arrivals is also supported by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. At the daily Downing Street briefing, he explained the importance of enacting the new measures: “Now that we’re getting the virus under control in the UK, there is a risk that cases from abroad begin once again to make up a greater proportion of overall cases”. He added: “We therefore need to take steps now to manage that risk of these imported cases triggering a second peak”.
While Home Secretary Priti Patel has claimed that the move is wholly “backed by science” and “essential” for continuing to contain and minimise the spread of the virus, some scientists disagree.
Questioning the reasoning behind a blanket quarantine, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Robert Dingwall, a member of SAGE, said: “We are not seeing new clusters that are taking off from people who have been travelling abroad?” He added: “I think we would really need to get the level in this country significantly further down before quarantine started to become a useful measure”. Further to this, he explained what would need to happen for such measures to be effective: “That I think, even then, we would have to see something that is targeted on countries with a significantly higher level of community transmission than ourselves – and there aren’t too many of those around, I’m afraid”.
The government’s own Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance even avoided a full endorsement of the plan. Responding to questions about the mandatory self-isolation measures, Vallance took his own opinion out of the equation: “The Sage advice from the experts in this area is that the measures like this are most effective when the number of cases is very low, and they’re most effective when they’re applied to countries from higher rates”. He added: “And the judgement of that time is, of course, not something for us, it’s something for politicians to make. They make the policy, and they make the timing decisions”.
The new measures have received little support and backlash was only magnified when it was uncovered that SAGE scientists were not consulted about the plan before it was announced by the Home Secretary. On top of this, both the UK’s Department of Health and the World Health Organisation only recommend quarantine measures “early in an outbreak”.
Rallying against the quarantine plans, on Wednesday 3 June, former PM Theresa May even ignited a Conservative rebellion.The MP for Maidenhead argued that the measures undermined the countries “global” status, calling the plan “damaging”. She was backed by Huw Merriman, Conservative Chair of the Transport Select Committee, who argued alternative measures should be adopted instead. He told The Telegraph: “Personally, I think it’s the wrong policy at this time and disproportionately impacts the economy. We should ditch blanket quarantine and self-distancing on planes and have different measures such as air bridges, compulsory PPE and temperature testing at airports”.
Meanwhile, some have warned that these measures could potentially set a dangerous precedent. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis, told Sky’s Kay Burley that while the government is seeking to achieve the right balance, fines may overstep the mark. He said we “don’t want to be in a situation where we live in effectively a police state”. Although others such as former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption, argue the country is already there.
Accompanying the voices of disgruntled MPs, those in the airline industry have argued that the new measures will essentially “kill travel”.
Reflecting on how these changes will impact the tourism industry, Tim Alderslade of Airlines UK said: “The quarantine will destroy jobs and put back the recovery at the exact time that other countries are opening up their borders. It is just about the worst thing they could do if the aim is to restart the economy and get aviation and tourism moving again”.
Meanwhile, Ryanair Chief Executive Michael O’Leary, expressed his disdain for the government’s quarantine plans, and argued they were poorly thought out. Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he outlined that despite measures coming into force from Monday, passenger forms were not yet available on the government website. He went on to call the measures “designed by Dominic Cummings for Dominic Cummings, who as we all know, doesn’t observe quarantine”. Finally he added: “This is going to do untold damage to British tourism”.
Echoing this sentiment, 70 travel chief executives, industry chairs, and general managers have joined forces to write a letter to the Home Secretary. Collectively they have called for the measures to be scrapped.
In the letter, the group which includes Derek Jones Chief Executive of Der Touristik UK, and the Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte, they write: “The very last thing the travel industry needs is a mandatory quarantine imposed on all arriving passengers which will deter foreign visitors from coming here, deter UK visitors from travelling abroad and, most likely, cause other countries to impose reciprocal quarantine requirements on British visitors, as France has already announced”.
The letter continues:“Many people urged the government to impose quarantine regulations during the early phases of Covid-19. Instead, no action was taken and flights from infected countries were allowed to land, disgorging thousands of potentially affected passengers into the wider community”.
Now, amidst pressure from Conservative MPs and the tourism industry alike, PM Boris Johnson has announced that the government will “certainly be developing” some kind of “travel corridor” or air bridges. This would be achieved through arranging agreements with other countries, allowing travellers to move freely in and out of the country without quarantine. However concerns have been raised over the safety of this concept.
Speaking about the possible introduction of these travel corridors, David Hunter, Professor of Epidemiology at Oxford University, said: “Air bridges between countries with similar Covid risks make sense, if it’s in the interests of both countries. When it’s asymmetric, it’s not obvious how that would work”. However, considering the UK has the second highest infection rate out of any major European country, it is unlikely that other countries would choose the UK as a travel partner.
Finally, while the Home Office has said that protecting public health is its number one “priority,” only time will tell whether the Prime Minister will bow down to political pressure from his party. But, for now it seems that the quarantine plans are here to stay.