Key questions on UK’s controversial quarantine policy


When news broke that the UK government was reimposing quarantine measures on travellers returning from Spain at the weekend, it alarmed not only holidaymakers faced with taking more time off work but a beleaguered travel industry that had finally glimpsed hopes of recovery.

On Tuesday Boris Johnson, prime minister, amplified the dour message for would-be sunseekers when he warned that “signs of a second wave” of coronavirus could now be seen in parts of Europe.

But questions remain over whether there is an alternative to the blanket quarantine imposed on travellers returning from countries deemed high-risk and the way the government assesses the threat from infection in those nations.

How has the policy changed? 

The four countries of the UK only introduced a sweeping quarantine system in early June, long after many other countries — in a move that angered the tourism sector.

Three weeks later the UK government announced a list of countries that would be exempt from the overall rules because they were considered relatively safe.

Even then, however, it said its new “traffic light system” would change regularly according to various data from other countries.

Spain was taken off the safe “green” list on Saturday after the infection rate in some regions soared — compelling transport secretary Grant Shapps to rush home from the country where he had been on holiday and self-isolate in the UK.

How will the new policy be enforced?

According to the Home Office, those ordered to self-isolate must fill in a “passenger locator form” giving the address where they will quarantine. Once at that location, they face potential spot checks by police or Public Health England and fines of up to £1,000 for breaches.

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Checks will in practice be made on about one in five of those who are known to be in quarantine, according to people familiar with the workings of the scheme.

Despite the policy coming into force from June 8, just one fine has been issued by police officers in the first seven weeks, according to statistics released on July 27 by the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Could testing be used to limit quarantine periods?

Temperature checks and Covid-19 tests at airports have been floated as alternatives to the blanket quarantine imposed on travellers returning from countries considered higher-risk © Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty

On Sunday Dido Harding, the former TalkTalk chief executive who runs the government’s Test and Trace programme, poured cold water on the idea of airport testing for returning travellers, noting that the incubation period meant someone who tested negative might still come down with the virus later.

However, the Telegraph reported on Tuesday that people found to be virus-free after eight days — long enough for symptoms to emerge in infected people — might be able to cut their quarantine period short. Officials admitted the discussions were taking place but said no decision had yet been made.

Meanwhile Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, has called for “smarter measures” — involving test, trace and isolate and temperature checks — at the border rather than a blanket quarantine for everyone.

Which countries might follow Spain?

The government is taking its decisions according to a multitude of factors, making it hard to predict which country might be next to be taken off the safe list.

These include: the estimated infection rate in that country’s population, the trend in infection, the transmission status, international epidemic intelligence and the testing capacity and quality of data available in that country. 

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Spanish data has been considered questionable by experts over the past few weeks because of the specific way it counts deaths.

Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a member of Sage, the government’s scientific advisory committee, questioned the basis for the government’s actions.

“What I think is missing at the moment is a co-ordinated government-level plan as to what is going to happen across different countries,” he said. “Not all of the decisions appear to have a rational epidemiological basis. There aren’t specific guidelines saying if incidence reaches a certain level, we’ll do X.”

Why can’t the UK impose a region-specific policy?

The Spanish government has criticised the UK for failing to differentiate between mainland Spain and islands like Majorca © Joan Mateu/AP

This is the nub of the current row between London and Madrid. Pedro Sanchez, prime minister of Spain, said it was an “error” for Britain to treat islands such as Ibiza, Majorca and the Canaries — where there have been fewer cases of Covid-19 — in the same way as the mainland. “It would be safer to be in those destinations than in the United Kingdom,” he said. “We are talking with British authorities to try to get them to reconsider.”

The overall rate of infection in Spain is currently 47 cases per 100,000 people compared with the UK’s 15 cases, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. But 64 per cent of cases are in just two territories.

This is why Germany has taken a more region-specific approach, announcing on Tuesday that tourists should avoid the regions of Catalonia, Aragón and Navarre — but not the southern coast or the Spanish islands. 

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On Tuesday the British government for the first time suggested it was considering regional restrictions in place of blanket rules applying to entire countries.

“For the time being, we are taking the approach by country for border measures, but it is the case that it could be that we could put them in place for regions in the future,” junior transport minister Charlotte Vere told the House of Lords.



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