Priti Patel: 'We owe it to the victims of Covid-19 to impose quarantine'

Charles Hymas
Home Secretary Priti Patel  - REUTERS
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Quarantining people arriving in the UK is crucial to preventing a second coronavirus peak, Priti Patel has said as she prepares to defend the controversial policy to MPs.

The Home Secretary, writing for The Telegraph with Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, warns “we will all suffer if we get this wrong” and argues tourism will be up and running faster if tough measures are taken to keep the virus in retreat. The article refers to air bridges, which would see restriction-free travel between the UK and some countries, but does not mention a date.

There has been growing Cabinet tension over quarantine, under which from Monday almost all people arriving in the UK must self-isolate for 14 days. The joint article by Ms Patel and Mr Shapps, who first raised the possibility of travel corridors, is intended to show Government unity on the issue.

Home Office sources were keen to stress that travel corridors – or air bridges – may not be possible by the end of this month, although this may spark a Tory rebellion. Several Cabinet members said it was essential air bridges were operating before July and Downing Street was understood to be open to that possibility.

But it was unclear if ministers would go further on Wednesday to smooth the passage of quarantine legislation when introduced in the Commons.

Critics have said the policy should have been adopted at the start of the outbreak. Prof Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College modeller whose predictions for the death toll convinced the Prime Minister to introduce lockdown, told peers on Tuesday that in late February and early March “thousands of infected individuals came into the country” from Spain and Italy and not, as thought, from China, Asia and the US.

A YouGov poll suggested Ms Patel had public backing, with 63 per cent saying they favoured quarantine for most arrivals, with only a quarter saying it should be restricted to countries with high virus rates. Just four per cent opposed any quarantine.

However, the heads of more than 300 of Britain’s biggest travel and hospitality businesses warned the Government they could lay off up to 60 per cent of their staff if it pressed ahead with quarantine, even with air bridges in place by the end of June.

Ms Patel said the policy would enable Britain to stop the virus spreading and return to normal sooner, which would mean tourism would be “up and running faster.” She accepted it would mean “challenges” for the industry but warned: “We will all suffer if we get this wrong and that is why it is crucial that we introduce these measures now. Let’s not throw away our progress in tackling this deadly virus. We owe it to the thousands who have died.

“The Government will review these and other measures, looking at global infection rates, the measures in place around the world, and the latest scientific advances to consider further options such as international travel corridors. But as the Prime Minister has outlined, we must take it one step  at a time.

'We must keep the country safe from potentially infected passengers unknowingly spreading the virus to others in society and ensure that the public’s health always comes first.”

The Department for Transport and Home Office are working on “travel corridors” to low-risk countries that could replace blanket quarantine but it is unclear if this could be achieved by June 29, when the policy is reviewed. In backing the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister told yesterday’s Cabinet meeting that quarantine was “an important policy to restrict the spread of the virus”.

A Whitehall source said: “If you look at any other countries in the world that have got a grip on coronavirus they have got very robust quarantine measures in place. However, George Morgan-Grenville, chief executive of tour operator Red Savannah, who was leading a campaign of 300 businesses against the quarantine measures, called them “a blunt weapon which will bring only economic disaster”.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, said there was “quite considerable concern” among MPs about the possible impact.

He warned there could be more job losses unless aviation and tourist businesses unless they were given early guidance on which low-risk countries would have “travel corridors” with the UK.  

“The question is why on earth announce this quarantine policy without announcing the criteria on which countries might be exempted at the same time? If businesses do not get that clarity on these exemptions, there is a danger some will decide they cannot continue," he said.

Henry Smith, the Conservative MP who chairs the cross-party Future of Aviation group, said: “In an ideal world, I would like the Government to drop the quarantine.  “The least we can hope for is quarantine being introduced at the same time as air bridges are announced between countries that have had a similar Covid-19 experience.”

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Patel will  on Wednesday announce that from Monday all arrivals – bar a short list of exemptions - will be required to complete an online "locator form" with their contact details, travel details and the address of where they will self-isolate for 14 days.

If international travellers are unable to safely self-isolate in their own accommodation the Government will help them find appropriate accommodation at their own expense.

Public Health England will contact people at random to ensure they are following the rules, and those who fail to comply could be hit with a £1,000 fine or, in the case of foreign visitors, deportation. The level of fine could increase if the risk of infection from abroad increases. Anyone who refuses to fill in the forms could be refused entry or fined £100.

People travelling from Ireland are exempt unless they have arrived in Ireland from overseas within the past 14 days, and other exemptions include hauliers and experts travelling to the UK to help with the fight against the virus.

David Davis Former Brexit Secretary said: "The quarantine law looks badly drafted and impossible to enforce. Unless the policy is massively mitigated with airbridges and other measures, it will cause terrible damage for the British aviation industry and trade in general.

"We should at least look to copy and learn from countries such as Austria, who test arrivals at airports and those who test negative for coronavirus are then exempted from quarantine."

Former transport minister Stephen Hammond asked what the point of the quarantine was when it could be dodged relatively easily. The Tory MP told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that air bridges would be a 'sensible, targeted response' between low-risk countries.

“I think the idea of air bridges are the right way forward,” he added. “I think, as we've seen across the world, people are taking measures out of the lockdown and this targeted approach would be a much more sensible way to behave.” Sir

Roger Gale, the veteran Tory MP for North Thanet in Kent, said: “It’s going to be hugely disruptive and I’m not convinced that it’s going to serve any useful purpose now. If it had been done four months ago it would have been a very good thing, but we seem to be clamping down when everybody else is lifting the curbs.”

Theresa Villiers, former Defra secretary, said: “Applying quarantine requirements in a blanket way has a very big economic cost without being necessary for controlling the virus.

“I really would urge the Government to get air bridges in place as soon as possible with safe destinations like France, Greece, so that we give a hand to the aviation industry and keep alive that people may be able to get away on a summer break in the sunshine.”

“Quarantine can be effective if properly enforced and is focused on places with high Covid-19 rates but I am not convinced it is necessary for places that are doing better on the disease than us.”