Border failings led to Covid-19 spreading faster in the UK, say MPs

Coronavirus spread faster in the UK as the government failed to bring in quarantine rules for travellers in the early days of the pandemic, according to MPs.

A passenger wearing a face mask as a precaution against the novel coronavirus arrives at Heathrow airport
A passenger wearing a face mask as a precaution against the novel coronavirus arrives at Heathrow airport

The “critical errors” – including the “inexplicable” decision to lift all border restrictions in March – “accelerated” the scale and pace of the pandemic in the country and led to “many more people contracting Covid-19”, a Commons home affairs committee report said.

The group of MPs backed the decision to include Spain in the current quarantine measures – although it hit out at the way travel corridor decisions were being made and called for improvements.

The inquiry considered all of the government’s decisions on border measures during the crisis so far, from the early quarantine of 273 people largely from Wuhan, through voluntary self-isolation applying to travellers from specific countries (including China, Iran and Italy) in February and early March; the lifting of all border measures on March 13; the introduction of mandatory quarantine in June; the introduction of travel corridors; and the most recent decision to reintroduce quarantine for Spain.

Drawing on evidence that “thousands of people with Covid-19 arrived in or returned to the UK in February and March”, the committee concluded: “The UK’s experience of Covid-19 has been far worse as a result of the government’s decision not to require quarantine during March, which would have reduced the number of imported infections.”

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Some 10,000 people with Covid-19 may have entered or returned to the country in March, the committee said.

It also cited a study referred to by the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance which indicated more than 1,300 separate strains of the virus were imported largely from Spain, Italy and France during that period.

Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper said: “The government’s failure to have proper quarantine measures in place in March as the infection was spreading fast was a grave error and meant Covid spread faster and reached more people. The UK was almost unique in having no border checks or quarantine arrangements at that time. That alone should have rung loud alarm bells for ministers and made them think again.

“Many times ministers told us they were following the science, but we cannot find any science at all behind their completely inexplicable decision to lift all the self-isolation guidance for travellers on March 13, a full ten days before lockdown, just at a time when other countries were introducing stronger border measures.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

“We were told that thousands more people with Covid-19 came back to the UK after that guidance was lifted. So in the middle of March, at a time when the number of people with Covid coming back into the UK was at its peak, they were going back to work or on public transport or seeing family without any quarantine in place.”

The government’s failure to provide the scientific advice behind its decisions – despite repeated requests and promises to do so – was “completely unacceptable”, the committee said, as it warned ministers may have been making decisions without sight of “critical information”.

The lack of clarity is “very serious and may well have contributed to mistakes being made”, the MPs said.

Ms Cooper added: “It has been extremely difficult to work out who took key decisions and on what basis.”

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Last-minute decisions and mixed messages were also “very unhelpful” for holidaymakers.

The committee also remained “unconvinced” by Home Office claims that an estimated 99.9 per cent of the public subjected to quarantine restrictions were complying with the rules.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The Home Affairs Committee are incorrect in their assertions. All of our decisions throughout the pandemic have been guided by the science, with appropriate measures introduced at the right time to keep us all safe.

“And with passengers numbers significantly reduced, the scientific advice was clear that quarantine measures for those entering the country from abroad would be most effective when the UK has a lower level of infection.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

“Therefore, as the virus was brought under control here, border measures were introduced on June 8 to protect public health and help avoid a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS.”

A UK Government spokesperson said:

“The Home Affairs Committee are incorrect in their assertions. All of our decisions throughout the pandemic have been guided by the science, with appropriate measures introduced at the right time to keep us all safe.

“And with passengers numbers significantly reduced, the scientific advice was clear that quarantine measures for those entering the country from abroad would be most effective when the UK has a lower level of infection.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

“Therefore, as the virus was brought under control here, border measures were introduced on June 8 to protect public health and help avoid a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS.”

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.