UK: Critics round on No 10 over 'ridiculous' rules for 14-day quarantine
Tens of thousands of new arrivals to the UK will be able to go food shopping, change accommodation and use public transport from airports during a 14-day quarantine imposed to prevent a second wave of coronavirus, under draft plans to be laid before parliament. Opponents claim exemptions to rules could mean great economic pain for little public health benefit.
About a fifth of people are expected to receive a spot-check to ensure that they are staying at the address or addresses they have provided to the authorities, but enforcement of the quarantine will be limited.
The rules, still being finalised and due to be published on Tuesday before coming into effect next week, have prompted cross-party concerns about the potentially limited impact on public health amid warnings of the severe damage that could be caused to the travel and aviation industry.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, announced on 22 May that nearly all international arrivals at UK ports, including airports, ferry ports and international rail terminals, must quarantine for 14 days from Monday 8 June. There are exemptions for health workers, scientists, lorry drivers and others.
During the coronavirus travel quarantine period, people will be allowed to leave their given address to buy food – including for pets – or medicine or to fulfil a legal obligation, it is understood. Arrivals into the country will be able to provide more than one address where they will stay for the period, sources with knowledge of the draft plans told the Guardian.
Around 20% of arrivals will receive a check call to make sure they are where they should be. However, according to draft rules, the police in England will not have power of entry. In theory, if they call on someone suspected of breaching the regulations, the person does not have to open the door. Fines of £1,000 can be issued in England, although while the quarantine plan is UK-wide, enforcement is devolved.
One source said: “To get caught, you will either have to be unlucky or stupid.”
A No 10 source stressed that going to the shops or changing address were allowed only if no alternative was possible, and would not be seen as the norm.
Exemptions to quarantine include escaping harm or to access victim services, similar to the list of reasonable excuses to leave home that were in force at the start of the general lockdown.
On arrival at ports and airports, people will be told to go directly home or to the address where they are staying, but the draft rules allow them to use public transport to get there.
The plans differ from some other countries, such as Greece, which designated quarantine hotels where new arrivals would stay, with food left outside their door and smoking rooms to avoid the need to go out.
Sir David King, the former government chief scientific adviser, who has convened an unofficial version of the Sage science advice committee to offer alternative views on coronavirus, said he was concerned by the draft plans. “If we look at what’s happened in other parts of Europe, and certainly in south-east Asia, the quarantine process has been much more rigorous than this,” he said.
“There’s a particular worry I have, that is too much discretion is being left to the individual. If the legal requirement, which for infectious diseases is set out in law, is not followed through, then it does spell difficulties. There’s too much emphasis on individual discretion in making key decisions.”
Travel and tourism industry representatives have said the plans, which will be reviewed after three weeks, will cause significant economic harm. They have called for so-called air bridges, allowing quarantine-free travel to and from countries with low Covid-19 infection rates.
Henry Smith, the Conservative MP for Crawley, who is heading a cross-party group of several dozen MPs opposing the plans, said the draft rules meant the quarantine proposals made even less sense. “It really feels like it will bring limited public health benefit for a lot of economic pain,” he said. “There were already some absurdities to the idea, like backdoor routes, so you could fly to Dublin, go Dublin to London, and then not be checked.”
Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP and former culture secretary, said the only quarantine plan that would bring benefits would be targeted at specific countries with high Covid-19 infection rates, such as Brazil. “There are no public health benefits of a blanket quarantine at this stage,” he said. “This is simply a fig leaf to disguise Priti Patel’s embarrassment at not having had a quarantine at the beginning of the outbreak, when one might have been justified.
“Not only is there no basis in science for this ridiculous policy, but it will unnecessarily cost thousands and thousands of jobs. The sooner the government scraps it, the better.”
While the MPs frustrated with the quarantine plans seem unlikely to force a vote, their numbers have grown sufficiently to seemingly prompt officials to indicate that the system could be revised very soon. Briefings from unnamed sources to some newspapers suggested some air bridges without quarantine could be introduced by the end of the month.
Asked about the idea of air bridges, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said on Monday: “We’ve said it’s something that we’re looking at, and that remains the case.”
At the weekend, more than 200 travel and hospitality businesses joined a formal push against the quarantine plans. George Morgan-Grenville, chief executive of tour operator Red Savannah, who is leading the campaign, said: “This is not just a group of company bosses complaining, but employees from bottom to top calling for the quarantine plans to be quashed. The extent of their pain is deeply worrying for our economy and our country.”
The rules will be introduced as a statutory instrument to the 1984 Public Health Act, a form of legislation that can amend the law without a full parliamentary process. This one will be made a “negative procedure”, which means it becomes law without a vote.
MPs can force a subsequent vote by agreeing a “prayer” motion in the Commons. However, with the process for physically distanced voting still to be decided once the Commons returns fully on Tuesday, this appears unlikely.
With estimates that queues of distanced MPs could take hours to pass physically through voting lobbies, Smith said he did not expect a vote.
“The appetite for votes that can be avoided is very low,” he said. “In the normal course of events, I think we’d be seeking a division on the issue of quarantine. But because it is something that’s temporary, and like it or not a relatively niche issue, my view is that it could be more counterproductive than positive, because it’ll put people’s backs up.”
A No 10 source said: “We are confident that these are very robust procedures which will help significantly in reducing the spread of coronavirus in the UK from overseas.”
A government spokesperson said: “This quarantine system is designed to keep the transmission rate down, stop new cases being brought in from abroad, and help prevent a devastating second wave of coronavirus. All of our decisions have been based on the latest scientific evidence.