Quarantine should have been in place earlier, committee says
The Home Affairs Committee has said that the government could have curbed the spread of Covid-19 in the UK if it had introduced its quarantine on arrivals into the country at an earlier stage.
It called the government’s decision not to introduce the measures until June a “serious error”, adding that the threat of the virus coming in from Europe had been underestimated.
The committee’s report supported the government’s decision not to close borders early on in the pandemic to enable a “large number” of British nationals abroad to return home but insisted that the quarantine should have been in force far sooner.
Before the quarantine law came into place in June, the only border measure required passengers from China’s Hubei Province where the virus first appeared, parts of South Korea, Iran and Italy to self-isolate for 14 days if arriving in February or early March.
The committee said that the government should have included Spain in its early arrangements, and was critical that the emphasis was placed too heavily upon Asian countries rather than recognising the potential for the virus to come from Europe.
It criticised the government's move of ending self-isolation advice on March 13 for any asymptomatic individuals arriving from abroad.
The Home Office has defended the decision, saying that the advice was phased out in favour of new guidance advising all people in the UK to go into self-isolation if they began to display symptoms.
Citing scientific evidence, the committee said that thousands of people with the virus may well have entered the UK between March 13 and March 23 when the lockdown was ordered.
The committee said: "It is highly likely that this contributed to the rapid increase in the spread of the virus in mid-March and to the overall scale of the outbreak in the UK.
"The failure properly to consider the possibility of imposing stricter requirements on those arriving - such as mandatory self-isolation, increased screening, targeted testing or enforceable quarantine - was a serious error."
It added that the decision to go back on self-isolation guidance for some international arrivals early on was a “very different” approach to other nations, concluding that countries which had introduced stringent border measures earlier on had been proven to be “justified” in their move.
Official estimates at the time used to justify the government’s approach indicated that only 0.5 per cent of the UK’s domestic infections had come in from overseas. These estimates were made in late March.
Yet, the committee has suggested that the actual proportion of cases was most likely “substantially higher” when the self-isolation advice was lifted on March 13.
The committee was supportive of the mandatory quarantine then being introduced in June and called on the government to consider introducing wider airport testing for UK arrivals.
A spokesperson for the Home Office responded: “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.
“With passenger numbers significantly reduced [later in the pandemic], 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.
“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.”
The Home Affairs Committee chair, Labour's Yvette Cooper, said that the failure to introduce a quarantine sooner had made the pandemic in the UK more severe.
Cooper criticised the guidance brought in on March 13, which “didn't cover anybody who was asymptomatic, anybody who wasn't sure what the symptoms were”.
She told the BBC: “At a time when other countries were introducing stronger border measures, the UK was lifting them.
“We've seen no science behind that decision at all - and it's that lack of science, lack of transparency that's so concerning”.