Coronavirus in Scotland: governments clash over quarantine travel loophole into Scotland

A war of words has broken out between the Scottish and UK governments over the launch of “quarantine hotels” requiring international travellers to Scotland to be detained for ten days to prevent the import of new variants of coronavirus.

From tomorrow all international arrivals at Scottish airports will have to go to quarantine hotels.

The Scottish Government has accused the UK government of undermining its public health message by failing to introduce a blanket policy of quarantine for all international arrivals.

The UK government has instead introduced a “red list” of countries, which would force a period of quarantine for travellers arriving in the UK from one of 33 named countries.

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As a result a loophole has been created, allowing people to fly into an English airport from any country not on the list and then travel into Scotland by train or car without quarantining.

However the UK government said it had put in place “some of the toughest border regimes in the world” and passengers travelling on to Scotland from England should abide by the Scottish Government’s quarantine and self-isolation rules when they cross the border.

Meanwhile sources in the airline and airport sectors claim there was little notice given by the Scottish Government about its latest restrictions, and there are rising concerns people will arrive in Scotland without knowing they will be expected to quarantine and pay a £1700 hotel bill.

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The new policy comes into effect today but Scottish transport secretary, Michael Matheson, said the decision not to follow “clinical advice” by the UK government and introduce quarantine for all international arrivals was “unacceptable” as it “undermined” the Scottish Government’s approach.

However he said he was still intent on “pressing” the UK government to change its stance and was awaiting a response from the Cabinet Office and Michael Gove.

Mr Matheson said six hotels had been blocked booked by the government: three close to Edinburgh Airport, two close to Glasgow Airport and one near Aberdeen to ensure international arrivals can be quarantined.

He said travellers now needed a Home Office locator form stating where they had flown from and where they were heading, a negative coronavirus test taken 72 hours before travel, and proof the “necessary quarantine arrangements” had been booked in advance.

He added: “When you arrive at the airport, border force will check all three of these and once through the border point you will be met by security who will then take you to baggage reclaim and then to transport which will take you direct to the hotel you’ve been allocated.”

He added: “The scientific and clinical advice is very clear that if you want to reduce importing new variants of the virus you have to have a comprehensive quarantine arrangement at your border, and their advice to do that is that everyone coming into the country following international travel goes into a quarantine facility.

“The advice is very clear to the Scottish and UK governments. The UK government has chosen not to go down that route, they want to go down the red listed countries route which we’ve already been told by the Joint Security Centre doesn’t work.

"Therefore it’s a system that will not stop the new variant coming into the country which is why we’ve listened to clinical advice and put in place the most comprehensive system we can within Scotland and asked the UK government to follow us in doing that.”

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab yesterday dismissed the idea of a blanket ban on travel into the UK, even with the South Africa variant of Covid-19 being detected in Austria which is not on the UK government's red list.

"I'm not sure that's proportionate, and of course having blanket bans on any, for example, air travel into the UK would be very difficult for the supply chains, things like freight," he said. "We think we've got the right balance – robust measures, but targeted measures."

However Mr Matheson said he had written to Michael Gove suggesting that if there was no blanket policy on quarantine, travellers arriving in England who intended to travel on to Scotland, should be able to go into a quarantine facility down south, but that there had been no agreement reached.

"This is a loophole created by the UK government and its failure to take action on the clinical advice provided,” he said. “We will continue to press the UK government not to do that and I’m still waiting for a response from pursuing this matter with Michael Gove.

"Earlier this week we made a formal request to put this in place and the danger is if they don’t act on this matter they potentially undermine the public health approach here in Scotland and that’s unacceptable.

“The other option would be to provide us with the details of those individuals who arrive into airports in England who are transiting on to Scotland to ask them that they then report to a quarantine hotel in Scotland. But the problem with that is they could be travelling on public transport and spreading any new variant they maybe carrying so it’s critical the UK government acts on clinical advice and puts these arrangements in place to help support our programme in Scotland even if they’re not prepared to do it in England.”

In response, a UK government spokesperson said: “We have taken action to limit the spread of coronavirus and, to raise our defences against new strains, we have put in place some of the toughest border regimes in the world.

“As we have said throughout the pandemic, you must follow the rules set by the relevant devolved administration when in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those arriving into England can transit onto Scotland but must follow the quarantine and self-isolation rules of the devolved administration on arrival.”

Concerns in the aviation industry about a lack of consultation in advance of the restrictions being brought in were also raised with Mr Matheson yesterday as he appeared on BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show but he said they were “not correct”.

"We were in touch with the airlines earlier in the week to make them aware of this and provide them with details about what any certificates should look like once you’ve booked your accommodation and contacted them yesterday to reinforce that point,” he said.

“We’ve been in touch, the airlines are aware of it and are advising passengers to have pre-booked quarantine hotels in place.”

However one source told The Scotsman, that the plan was only put to all Scottish airports for the first time last Thursday via a zoom call and there had been “tumbleweed” from representatives in response.

“There has been no economic impact study about the effect this policy will have on Scottish airports, compared to those in England, and the likelihood of airlines just moving flights out of Scotland altogether. There was also a failure to understand that people can fly to Dublin and then into the UK without quarantine because of the Common Travel Area or that they’d created a huge loophole which lets people fly to England and then drive or take the train to Scotland.

"There are very few international flights arriving and right now they are bringing people here because of work, or because they’ve lost a job abroad, or to see a family member who is dying so they have dispensation to fly, nobody is coming for a holiday, but these people will now be expected to pay close to £2000 to quarantine.”

Another source said: “This is just the latest restrictions for air travel without any consultation with those of us at the sharp end. There has been untold damage to the industry in Scotland and who knows if it will ever recover.”

Edinburgh Airport is due to see two international flights arrive today – one at 7.30am from Dublin, another at 10.30am from Istanbul, which will see around 65 passengers disembark. Glasgow Airport has no international flights scheduled for weeks, while Aberdeen has two oil and gas flights to Stavanger and Bergen tomorrow, but which are exempt from the restrictions.

A spokesman for Edinburgh Airport said: “We’ve spent the past few days trying to make the government’s plan fit for purpose in an airport environment as the initial proposals put to us were lacking in basic detail and knowledge of airport operations. This is exactly why we wanted to be engaged far earlier in the process rather than being in a race against time.

“With just days of this policy going live the government was changing its mind on a key issue around arrivals from Ireland and the need for quarantine, with connecting passengers potentially able to avoid managed isolation altogether.

"This uncertainty and the last minute briefing of airlines does not inspire confidence nor promote understanding of the policy which makes it likely some passengers will be completely unaware of this new requirement when they arrive tomorrow.

“We have written to the First Minister to once again offer our support, but primarily we have raised our concerns about this whole approach which does not feel adequate.”

Mr Matheson also said the Scottish Government has ruled out introducing police checks at the road border with England as “thousands of vehicles cross that particular route every day” and “trying to operationalise it would be very challenging”.

Vaccination passports, he said, could be useful in the future once the efficacy of the vaccine was properly understood, but that currently such an idea “can’t replace a comprehensive quarantine system and to go down that route at this time would give people false hope.”

Restrictions on international travel, he said would be in place “for some months to come” but he hoped by the time of the environmental conference COP26 in Glasgow this November, “good progress” would have been made.

Meanwhile, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said there will be no quarantine hotels in Wales for the time being as there were no flights from red list countries until March.

But he added he would have done the "opposite" to the UK Government in regard to its approach to overseas travellers. "Their approach is to say that 'everybody can come in, other than the people on the red list'.

"I would have said nobody can come in other than a list of countries where we are absolutely sure that it is safe for people to come without the self-quarantine arrangements that have been suggested.

"I just think we need to build the wall higher to make sure we are not vulnerable to new variants that could appear in any part of the world."

The DUP has said there is "value in exploring" a two-island approach by Ireland and the UK to international travel. The party's leader in Westminster, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, said there was a lot of scope for cooperation in the Common Travel Area that operates between the two islands.

Irish deputy premier Leo Varadkar said last week that preliminary discussions on such an approach have begun with the UK government.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Six hotels close to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow have been selected on the basis of proximity to the airport, capacity to meet estimated demand and cost. The UK Government is currently leading on a UK-wide procurement process which includes the online booking system.

“The Scottish Government has been in contact with representatives of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow Airports on numerous occasions in the weeks leading up to last week’s announcement of the requirement to quarantine in a hotel on arrival in Scotland. We will continue our ongoing engagement with the aviation sector to support it during this period of business disruption, and to ensure that we can restore Scotland’s international connectivity when it is appropriate to do so.”

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