A mandatory requirement that electronic tags be worn by international arrivals for up to 10 days to ensure they abided by Covid-19 quarantine restrictions was an option explored by the Home Office under controversial plans, the Guardian has learned.
The details, understood to have been included in a draft “borders enforcement” policy paper produced by Priti Patel’s department, have emerged as the UK government’s Covid-O committee is preparing to meet on Friday to discuss implementing further travel restrictions. Australia-style quarantine hotels for arrivals or an extension of travel bans are under consideration by ministers.
It follows Boris Johnson unveiling tougher travel curbs last week, suspending the travel corridors system so people arriving from a list of formerly exempt countries could no longer avoid quarantine. Travellers also have to demonstrate they have had a negative Covid test before flying to the UK. Separately, a ban on travellers from South America and Portugal came into effect last Friday in response to concerns about a new coronavirus variant in Brazil.
The Guardian understands that a draft nine-page “borders enforcement” Home Office policy paper circulating in Whitehall this week included the option of “tagging” travellers to keep track of them during the 10-day quarantine period. A similar policy was introduced in Singapore last summer to ensure arrivals who stayed in their own accommodation, rather than a state-appointed facility, were keeping to quarantine rules.
Despite being included in the Home Office paper, the tagging option was not recommended by officials in the document. It comes after a recording emerged this week of Patel admitting that borders should have been closed earlier, claiming she had been an advocate of shutting them at the start of the Covid pandemic last March.
The draft paper, which provides a “rapid review of available options” to enforce quarantine in light of the emergence of new Covid variants, recommends a short-term travel ban until tougher measures can be implemented, going on to detail three options. They include the requirement for new arrivals to stay at “isolation centres”, manned by private security. It is understood this option would, in effect, mean arrivals staying at hotels.
But the paper also makes reference to the approach taken to house quarantined returnees from Wuhan at the outset of the pandemic. The first batch of British nationals flown back from the Chinese city where the outbreak began stayed at NHS nursing accommodation in Merseyside.
The Home Office paper outlines the option of tagging all individuals who arrive or who choose not to stay in an isolation centre. It summarises this as a “mandatory requirement that all people entering the country are ‘tagged’ to enable monitoring of compliance with the need to self-isolate”.
International arrivals are currently required by law to quarantine for 10 days, although people who have not travelled from high-risk countries with travel bans who pay for a Covid test after five days that returns a negative result can leave isolation sooner.
The Home Office paper refers to the potential problems associated with the tagging option, including the need for new legislation to enforce it. “It is likely that legislation of this nature would be highly challenged as an infringement to civil liberties/human rights by both parliament and civil liberty groups,” it notes.
The paper highlights that the tagging system is already under strain, with 13,000 electronic monitoring tags in circulation. Under a “behavioural consideration” section, the paper states that a systematic review of monitoring of offenders using tags found it does not reduce offending behaviour. However, it is understood to note that the review might not be comparable as it was carried out in relation to offenders. Elsewhere, the paper states that the tagging option is “not recommended”.
The third option explored by the paper is a location-tracking app to monitor the movement of arrivals, with a mandatory requirement for it to be downloaded. The idea, similar to a system used in Poland, would involve individuals having to send a photograph of themselves within a stipulated time period that evidences via GPS that they are at their isolation site.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not comment on leaks.”