A targeted quarantine policy is “half-baked” and leaves the UK’s vaccination programme open to as-yet unknown strains of coronavirus that could set back the country’s progress, Labour has warned.
Strict new quarantine rules in hotels are expected to be announced later after ministers meet to sign off the proposals on Tuesday evening, with the prime minister favouring a targeted approach that would see hotel quarantine imposed on British citizens from a limited number of countries such as South Africa and Brazil.
The meeting will consider a number of options and ministers including Priti Patel and Matt Hancock are expected to argue for a more blanket approach – or a wider number of countries on the list.
Should a targeted approach be approved, the UK will reserve the right to expand measures, a government source said. Bans are already in place on visitors from South Africa, Portugal, Brazil and other South American countries in a bid to control the spread of new variants of Covid-19.
Labour said on Tuesday that it was calling for a comprehensive hotel quarantine system. Speaking in the Commons, the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said the policy “cannot be restricted to only a handful of countries, leaving gaping holes in our defences against different strains of the virus emerging around the world, and the government must announce a sector support package for aviation”.
He said the limited policy was “half baked … from the start of the pandemic the government’s handling of measures with the border has been chaotic.”
Patel told the Commons that the UK had “a world leading vaccination programme … We are proud of that programme and the government will do everything that it can to protect that vaccine from new strains of the virus.”
Patel is understood to have argued privately that a more comprehensive quarantine scheme would protect the UK from as-yet unknown new strains.
Scientists said they favoured the blanket approach, highlighting that most countries do not have sophisticated surveillance systems that can detect existing or new variants, which makes limiting the policy to certain countries futile.
“The big thing about infectious diseases is that they don’t respect international borders,” said Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia.
However, Hunter questioned whether the policy was sustainable over the longer term. “I think there are some benefits to this, but we can’t rely on it, and the crucial thing is to make sure we vaccinate as many of our population as we can.”
Susan Michie – a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behavioural Science, a Sage subcommittee – added that limiting the policy to only certain countries may incentivise people to travel from one country to another before entering Britain.
Within the UK, data suggests a quarter of people who are supposed to be self-isolating still think they can go to the shops, Michie said. “I don’t think British people are necessarily different than people from the rest of the world. People are likely to go out unless it’s really managed and well supervised.”
Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of the Independent Sage committee, said there was no evidence that the voluntary self-isolation policy had been satisfactory.
Regarding the targeted approach to certain countries, he said: “At the best, it’s a very poor sticking plaster and it will … certainly not stop the entry of new variants to the UK.”