Coronavirus quarantine at the Scotland-England Border is not realistic or necessary – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

It makes more sense to use the test-and-trace system to deal with localised Covid flare-ups, rather than impose a blanket restriction on the English-Scottish border, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

A welcome to Scotland road sign at the Scotland/England border on the A1 (Picture: Stephen Barnes/iStockphoto/Getty Images)
A welcome to Scotland road sign at the Scotland/England border on the A1 (Picture: Stephen Barnes/iStockphoto/Getty Images)

The undeniable drop-off in Scottish Covid-19 mortality is such welcome respite after months of coronavirus tragedy. With no reported deaths over the weekend and until three today, scientific advisors have started suggesting (hope against hope) that Scotland could be virus-free by the end of the summer. It led some government sources to brief the possibility that Scotland should, at that point, consider imposing a quarantine order on anyone traveling into Scotland from England.

That triggered explosive reactions on both sides of the independence divide and Nicola Sturgeon tried to dampen things down. She said it was not a point of constitutional debate, but one of public health but whilst there were no plans to impose a quarantine order at the moment, she wouldn’t rule anything out.

Let’s unpack that. A universal quarantine on anyone travelling from England might be welcomed by some, but it would itself have a hugely detrimental impact on many areas of Scottish life.

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For a start, it wouldn’t just impact on those coming north. Anyone visiting England from here, even for a short while would have to be subject to the same period of isolation on return. Like the lady who told the Evening News on Monday: “I’ve waited seven weeks to meet my new grandson in Halifax, obeying every rule. This would just about tip me over the edge.”

Then there are the not insubstantial numbers of people who live one side of the Border and work on the other – such an order would make it impossible for them to do their job. The same goes for logistics and supply chains, it’s not at all clear what quarantine restrictions would mean for freight coming from England.

Test-and-trace

Consider also, the impact on Scottish tourism. With furlough and government grant support winding down, the tourist and hospitality industry is going to depend, almost utterly, on the spending power of those visiting with us from other parts of the UK. With continuing restrictions on international travel, we can’t afford to close off our biggest domestic tourist market.

None of this is to say that we won’t need restrictions on people travelling here from affected areas – we absolutely will. But with test-and-trace taking off across the UK, we’re starting to understand exactly where coronavirus is and how it’s moving around.

Even countries that handled the first wave of the pandemic well now have to act fast to contain local outbreaks of the virus. We saw in Germany how fast the virus can still spread, with 1500 people in a single workplace recently testing positive. In response, two districts reimposed restrictions locally to keep people safe without plunging other parts of the country back into lockdown.

I don’t think that a quarantine roadblock at Coldstream is a realistic proposition, but a more sophisticated approach to managing outbreaks locally might be, whether they’re in Leicester or Linlithgow.

Family of nations

In the main, the passage of the virus through these islands has been fairly uniform, it’s just happened at different rates. Covid-19 was raging in London and the south of England for some time before the first deaths occurred in Scotland so while we entered lockdown with everyone else, that meant that we did so earlier in our viral curve.

The response to the virus by both governments has been broadly symmetrical as well, albeit on a marginally different timetable. Ruth Davidson described the policy response to the emergency in Scotland as ITV+1 – our decisions and measures have broadly matched those of England but with a slight delay.

A quarantine order on England isn’t desirable or realistic for the reasons I’ve described. Now is the time for joined-up thinking across this family of nations, not hot-take solutions involving Border restrictions that might end up doing more harm than good.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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