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Early lifting of UK border measures cost lives, claim MPs

Failures on border measures in March increased scale and pace of COVID-19 pandemic, says Home Affairs Committee

Mark Moran
05 August 2020
Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Committee
Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Committee

 

The spread of the pandemic in the UK was accelerated in the early months by critical errors in the Government's approach to border measures that led to many more people contracting COVID-19, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has found.

The cross-party committee of MPs has published a report that says Government is right to include Spain in the current quarantine arrangements, but criticises handling and calls for improvements in way travel corridor decisions are made.

Earlier quarantine restrictions on arrivals could have slowed spread of coronavirus in the UK, say the MPs. The Home Affairs Committee said a lack of border measures earlier in the pandemic was a “serious mistake”.  The MPs also suggests that the UK Government had underestimated the threat of importing the virus from Europe as opposed to Asia.

However, the Home Office has refuted the committee’s latest report, saying the MPs’ assertions are incorrect. A Home Office spokesperson said: "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."

Home Office preparedness for COVID-19 (coronavirus): management of the borders can be read by clicking here

The MPs’ inquiry considered all of the Government's decisions on border measures – from the early quarantine of 273 people largely from Wuhan, through the voluntary self-isolation measures applied to travellers from specific countries (including China, Iran and Italy) in February and early March followed by the lifting of all border measures on 13 March, to the introduction of mandatory quarantine in June, followed by 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 concludes that 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.

The committee is particularly critical of the Government's decision on 13 March to remove all self-isolation guidance for travellers arriving in the UK at a time when other comparable countries were strengthening their border measures, and when hundreds of new COVID cases were arriving every day – particularly from Spain, Italy and France, including many British residents returning home.

The committee was unable to find any scientific evidence to justify this inexplicable decision and says that the failure to have any special border measures in place in mid March was a serious error. It also found that the decision not to include Spain in the earlier country specific measures in late February was a mistake as doing so could have slowed the virus spread.

The MP's report welcomes the introduction of border measures this summer, and supports the development of travel corridors and the application of quarantine requirements for arrivals from Spain given the current rising number of infections there. But it is very critical of the handling and communication of the decision to remove the travel corridor with Spain and warns that the Government needs to be much more sensitive to the impact on families and businesses.

The committee calls for publication of the Joint Biosecurity Centre's traffic light assessment of different countries so that people can better judge the risk before travelling. It criticises the lack of earlier warnings about the potential risks of travel and the mixed messages from Government, with ministers welcoming air corridors on 8 July as "good news for holiday makers”.

The MPs recognise the difficulties the Government has faced in responding swiftly to the unprecedented challenges from COVID-19, and also recognises that border measures are only part of the response to the pandemic. But given the changing global pattern of the pandemic it says border measures will be needed for some time, so scrutiny is important to ensure the most effective measures are put in place at the right time.

The committee’s chair, Yvette Cooper MP said: “COVID-19 is a global pandemic, so all countries need to be able to use border measures at different times to prevent it spreading and to save lives – the consequences of failing to do so are very serious for both public health and the economy.

“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 13 March a full ten days before lockdown, just at a time when other countries were introducing stronger border measures. 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 onto public transport or seeing family without any quarantine in place.

“We are concerned that border measures just weren't taken seriously enough at the beginning of the crisis, either in the discussions among scientific advisers or in ministerial decision making. It appears ministers took decisions without critical information they should have had, and it has been extremely difficult to work out who took key decisions and on what basis.

“Given that mistakes were made at the beginning, the Government has been right to learn lessons and to reintroduce border measures including applying quarantine for arrivals from Spain as infections are rising. But it was very unhelpful for ministers to describe the travel corridors as ‘good news for holiday makers’" when they were announced as the mixed messages meant people booked holidays in Spain in good faith and now are put in a really difficult position. The Government needs to be much more sensitive to the impact on families and businesses of last-minute decisions like this, and it needs to publish much more information including a proper traffic lights system so that people can see what the risks are.

“In an unprecedented public health crisis, the Government inevitably faces very difficult decisions. But they would be much more effective with greater transparency and trust. Publishing the science and evidence behind their decisions would mean they benefit both from greater scrutiny and debate to get those decisions right, and also from greater trust, understanding and support."

Critical decisions and potential mistakes
The Home Affairs Select Committee’s time line

  • In late January and February, as it faced a new and unprecedented public health challenge from COVID-19, the Government was right to quarantine people arriving from Wuhan, and then to introduce self-isolation measures for other infection hotspots including Italy and Iran. However, it was slow to recognise the increased risk of the disease spreading from other European countries, and it was a mistake particularly not to include Spain on the list for early self-isolation measures. With stronger early measures it is likely that the spread of infection would have been slowed.
  • The Government's decision to lift the self-isolation guidance for specific countries on 13 March and to begin a period of three months where no border measures were in place to counteract the spread of COVID-19 was inexplicable. Evidence suggests that thousands of new infections entered the country in the 10-day period between the 13 March and the introduction of a general lockdown in the UK on 23 March, and that is likely to have seriously increased the pace and scale of the pandemic in the UK.
  • Other countries were overwhelmingly introducing stronger border measures at this time, including quarantine, testing, screening and border closures. The UK was highly unusual in lifting border measures instead and that should have raised serious questions for ministers about the approach they were taking.
  • Evidence from genomic studies and referenced by the Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance shows that over 1,300 separate strains of the virus were imported largely from Spain, Italy and France during that period. Other evidence to the committee suggests up to 10,000 people with COVID-19 entered or returned to the country in March.
  • Not having any special border measures applicable to people arriving from Spain and France during February and March, and only having voluntary self-isolation measures for travellers from Italy until 13 March was a serious error and had a material impact on the number of cases arriving in the UK, and on the pace and scale of the epidemic. Many more people in the UK caught COVID-19 as a result.

Poor decision-making
The committee is critical of the lack of transparency over Government border decisions and raises concerns about the scientific advice and about Ministerial decision-making and departmental coordination. “It is not clear who was responsible for making the decision to withdraw self-isolation guidance on 13 March or on what basis,” says the committee. “No cabinet minister or official whom we have asked has been able to provide any explanation for the process by which and the basis on which the decision was made. The lack of clarity about the responsibility for decision making in this crucial area is very serious and may well have contributed to mistakes being made.”

The committee said it has been unable to find any scientific basis or analysis behind the decision to lift border controls on 13 March. ”It is unacceptable that despite nine different formal requests by members of the committee for the science behind the decision, and despite Government promises to provide the information, none has been provided,” says the committee.

“Insufficient emphasis was placed on the importance of controlling importation from overseas as a method to contain the virus. The early decision by SAGE only to consider measures that could deliver a full month's delay to the virus is very hard to understand. Additive measures should have been considered and delays even of a few days as a result of border quarantine measures alongside other domestic measures like social distancing could have had a significant impact on the scope of the outbreak.

“Ministers also appeared to take decisions without critical information and appear not to have had any estimates of the number of people likely to be travelling into the country with COVID-19 during this time. It is vital that a wider range of estimates be made available to ministers to inform their decisions in the future.”

Travel corridors
The committee welcomes the Government’s decision to reintroduce border measures and the report considers what kinds of border measures are most appropriate. “At a time when COVID-19 infections continue to increase across the world and when hotspots of infection continue to change, all countries are going to need different kinds of border measures to control the spread of the virus for some time to come. We support the development of travel corridors to recognise the different prevalence of the virus in different countries, but we urge the Government to be more transparent and publish the analysis behind its decisions. It will build more support for the difficult balancing judgements it has to take if it is open about the evidence behind them.

Lifting the travel corridor for Spain
Given the surge in COVID infections in Spain and the clear and rising risk of increasing numbers of people returning to the UK with COVID-19, the committee feels a precautionary approach including quarantine for returning travellers is the right one. “It is welcome that the Government has learned from what happened earlier in the crisis when measures were not in place as infections were rising,” the MPs say.

“However this has undoubtedly been extremely difficult for many travellers who paid for holidays in Spain following Government guidance in the expectation that they would be able to return to work, caring responsibilities, medical appointments or family events on their return. There should be significant changes to the way such decisions are handled and communicated in future.

“The Government has rightly warned now about the risk that travel corridors will change but stronger warnings should have been given when the travel corridors were announced in early July. Government mixed messages, including Ministers hailing the measures as ‘good news for holiday makers’, were regrettable. Instead the Government should publish the traffic light assessments and prevalence rates for different countries compiled by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. Potential travellers must be able to access information on the risks of travelling especially when the rules may change at short notice.

Improving co-ordination, communication and transparency
The MPs suggest that the Joint Biosecurity Centre should represent a step forward in how the pandemic is managed in the UK, both in identifying travel risk for individual countries and assessing the public health impact of border measures as a whole. However, the MPs say there has been a lack of transparency about the analysis produced by the centre and even basic assessments of COVID-19 prevalence have not been published.

“There is a lack of clarity over which Government department or agency is ultimately responsible for coordinating COVID-19 border policy,” say the MPs. “It is right that Departments carry out work within their remit; however better coordination and overall leadership is required for policies to work coherently. The Committee welcomes the role of a cross-departmental committee – the COVID-19 operations committee – to draw together decisions between departments, but there have still been co-ordination problems. The committee recommends that either the Cabinet Office or the Home Office should be charged with lead responsibility for COVID-19 border policy.

Enforcement and compliance
The committee said it is unconvinced by the Home Office estimate that the compliance rate for quarantine is 99.9%, as the majority of checks are being done at the border even though the majority of the compliance is required in the community. The MPs say: “The Government's estimate of compliance with its enforcement regime for border quarantine needs to be better evidenced. It should routinely publish the number of people required to quarantine and the number of spot checks, home visits, police referrals and enforcement actions, among other data, to allow oversight of the whole process.”

Testing
The committee says the Home Office, Department of Health and Social Care and Department for Transport should investigate the viability of introducing widespread or targeted tests at the border learning lessons from other countries like Iceland, Hong Kong or South Korea.  “We agree with the Government that a testing and tracing system alone is not currently enough to address the importation risk from overseas travel. However, it should look at international examples and develop testing further alongside quarantine and travel corridor measures,” the MPs say.

Preparing for future spikes
Border quarantine measures are likely to remain in place for some time, particularly if the predicted increase in cases over winter months comes to fruition. The UK will have to maintain a flexible approach that reacts quickly to emerging circumstances and learn from practice in other countries, advise the MPs.

“Greater clarity would be helpful on the Government's overall objectives for its border measures and travel corridors as part of the wider strategy against COVID-19, including how it is balancing public health and economic considerations,” the MPs write. “Maintaining transparency and trust will be vital if public confidence in self-isolation and quarantine measures following international travel is to be sustained in the long-term.”

The Home Office responds

The Home Office has defended the Government’s actions on quarantine and border checks. A Home Office spokesperson said: "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."

The Home Office spokesperson said the Government has followed the scientific advice throughout the pandemic. “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.

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

 
 
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