Government scientists warned quarantining all arrivals could ‘get close’ to preventing new variant spread

‘Reactive, geographical targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon,’ scientists say

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 02 February 2021 11:35
Labour's Nick Thomas-Symonds says border measures "slow" and "inadequate"

A fresh row has emerged over the failure to quarantine all arrivals into the UK after government scientists suggested that only this measure or border closures could “get close” to preventing the import of new cases of coronavirus and variants. 

It comes after Boris Johnson resisted calls for blanket border measures last week, as he unveiled a mandatory 10-day hotel quarantine policy for those arriving in the UK from 33 countries designated “high-risk” by the government.

According to The Times, however, experts on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested during a meeting on 21 January that “reactive, geographical targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon”.

Leaked minutes from the meeting published by the newspaper say: “The emergence of new variants of concern around the world presents a rationale for attempting to reduce importation of even small numbers of infectious cases. 

“This rationale will strengthen if new variants emerge that are capable of immune escape. Measures would be likely to delay importation of these variants rather than prevent them altogether.”

They added: “No intervention, other than a complete, pre-emptive closure of borders, or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities, irrespective of testing history, can get close to fully preventing the importation of new cases or new variants. 

“Reactive, geographical targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants due to the lag between the emergence and identification of variants of concern, as well as the potential for indirect travel via a third country.”

The government has not published the minutes from the 21 January meeting and Politico reported that Downing Street had pushed back against the reports, suggesting that Sage did not directly advise the prime minister to close the borders or introduce blanket quarantine measures.

Seizing on the report, Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary who has been pushing for more stringent border measures, urged his opposite number Priti Patel to come to Parliament and explain the government’s “reckless policy”.

“Ministers have knowingly left the UK borer open and potentially exposed people to new strains of the virus, in direct contradiction of their own government scientists’ advice,” he claimed. “This puts the gains of the vaccine at risk, with disastrous consequences for people’s lives.”

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, professor Calum Semple, a member of the advisory body, said it was much easier for smaller islands to close their borders, adding that Britain is a “complex, transit country”.

“In general I do support restricting movement, particularly of people at this time. You can’t do it altogether when you’ve got a country that’s dependent on imports for food… it’s just not practical. But yes, significant reduction in the movement of people is incredibly important at present.” 

No 10 has not officially commented on the reports, but the universities minister Michelle Donelan told BBC Breakfast that introducing a hotel quarantine system for all countries would be “unfeasible”. 

“We have to be realistic about what we adopt and what we do, and what is deliverable as well, and also targeted in our approach to making sure that we minimise the risk and identifying those countries where we can see the risk,” she said. "So, a blanket policy that Nicola Sturgeon is proposing would not necessarily be as effective as the one that we are suggesting, and also it's much more doable."

On Monday, it emerged the government was encouraging some 80,000 people to take part in “surge” testing — regardless of whether they have symptoms, as part of efforts to contain the spread of the South African coronavirus variant. So far, 105 cases have been attributed to the new variant in eight different English postcodes. 

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