Home Secretary Priti Patel has been accused of leaving the “nation’s doors unlocked” to alarming new coronavirus variants amid calls to strengthen border protections.
Boris Johnson has said that ministers will be bringing in measures to ensure people arriving in the UK are tested but Labour and some senior Tory MPs have called for further action as England entered its third national lockdown.
Ministers are understood to be considering introducing a requirement for international arrivals to have a negative coronavirus test in the 72 hours before travelling to Britain in order to tackle surging cases. Hauliers would be exempt.
Currently arrivals into England from nations that are not exempted under the travel corridor programme must isolate for 10 days.
But under the test and release scheme introduced in December, this can be shortened if they have a private test five days after their departure and it comes back negative.
Meanwhile Labour shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds wrote to Ms Patel calling for an “urgent review and improvement plan” as he raised concerns over checks on arrivals who are meant to be quarantining.
Mr Thomas-Symonds wrote: “It is especially worrying given the concerns regarding mutation of the virus that emerged in South Africa, which the Health Secretary rightly said is ‘incredibly worrying’.
“However, the lack of a robust quarantine system as a result of shortcomings from the Government mean that it is virtually impossible to keep a grip on this spread or other variants that may come from overseas, leaving the UK defenceless, and completely exposed, with the nation’s doors unlocked to further Covid mutations.”
The Home Office defended its “stringent measures”, and pointed to its move to stop direct flights from South Africa to the UK amid concerns over a new coronavirus variant in high prevalence there.
Mr Thomas-Symonds told Ms Patel protection against variant strains arriving from overseas was “effectively non-existent”, pointing to Government figures suggesting just 3% of arrivals expected to quarantine in England and Northern Ireland were successfully contacted by compliance checkers in the summer.
A Government spokesman responded: “The figures in this letter are inaccurate. Border Force have conducted more than three million spot checks and PHE (Public Health England) have been contacting a further 1,500 people each day.
“We are determined to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Our stringent measures, such compulsory Passenger Locator Forms and spot checks both at the border and during quarantine periods, have seen a high level of compliance.”
Concerns are particularly high over the South African variant because it is not only thought to be more contagious but there are fears it could affect the current vaccines, unlike the novel strain that has achieved high prevalence in England.
Direct flights to the UK from South Africa were suspended last month and many new arrivals who have been there in the previous 10 days will not be permitted entry.
Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt on Monday called for the closure of the borders, with an “off-the-scale” winter crisis brewing within the NHS.
Ahead of the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday announcing the lockdown, the chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee wrote on Twitter : “Time to act: thread on why we need to close schools, borders, and ban all household mixing RIGHT AWAY.”
The SNP’s home affairs spokeswoman Joanna Cherry accused the Government of “repeating the same mistakes” by not introducing “effective” restrictions at the border.
“The UK Government must stop all but essential travel, and introduce a far more rigorous system of health checks and quarantining at the border,” she said.
The Prime Minister told the Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that the Government will be “bringing in measures to ensure that we test people coming into this country and prevent the virus from being readmitted”.
During the first lockdown, the Government argued against introducing border restrictions while the prevalence was so high in the UK, with experts arguing it would do little to bring down infection rates.
A quarantine period, however, was introduced in June after the first peak and when cases were more under control.