On Thursday, the number of UK coronavirus cases hit 1,522 in a single day, it was the highest rise in 11 weeks. Whether we’re seeing a second spike or we’re still in the first wave of the virus, one thing is clear: we’re not out of the woods yet.
At the same time, thousands of people are pouring back into the country every day. Much fanfare has been made about the government’s ever-changing list of countries on the quarantine list, with Jamaica, Switzerland and the Czech Republic being added this week.
But wherever you’re coming in from, ‘you must complete’ a Passenger Locator Form (PLF) “before you arrive in the UK from any country”, Government advice states.
It’s a long online form that is at times repetitive, at others bizarre. For example, it asks Brits when they plan to leave the UK – which felt like predicting when I might meet my end. (I pessimistically opted for some time around 2070.)
The rule though is unequivocal, and the intention noble. But how much is it being enforced?
On Thursday night, I returned back from a delayed holiday in Greece. Expecting to be asked to show the contact tracing form, I filled it out in advance.
The holiday was touch-and-go. Greece’s number of coronavirus infections has been rising steadily since mid-July. It was possible that it would be added to the quarantine list while I was away.
The authorities were on the case when I was getting into Greece. I was reminded repeatedly to fill in a Greek Passenger Locator Form, and made to show it.
While there, news emerged that around 30 teenagers who were on the Greek island of Zante had contracted coronavirus – bringing it back to Plymouth, according to local health officials. A local lockdown was even mooted.
Yet despite cases rising again in both countries, absolutely no one asked for my UK Passenger Locator Form, either in Greece or back at Gatwick.
On paper, a system is in place. Ministers can – almost with a straight face – reassure journalists that the rules are clear. But what good is a system if no one is enforcing it?
I thought it might be an isolated case. But when I talked to others about it, mine was by no means the only flight where people with Covid-19 may have gone untracked.
I heard reports from Heathrow – where Border Force staff, who administer the scheme – were apparently diligent. Meanwhile, those going through the e-gates managed to evade checks entirely.
Another recent traveller, Henry Tinsley, told me: “No one asked us about it. It’s a bit like mask-wearing in shops: no one enforces it.” Although at least with mask-wearing in shops, it’s clear to others who has followed the guidance or not.
A friend was in Spain while it was on the UK’s quarantine list. He was, quite reasonably expecting to have to show his PLF. No one asked for it. How exactly are quarantine ‘spot checks’ meant to take place without knowing who was is meant to be quarantining?
Another friend returning from Germany only knew about the form’s existence because a friend told him about it. No matter, as no one asked for it anyway. The examples go on and on, and on. Untracked travellers from Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and more got in touch.
A spokesperson for Border Force told me they were “operating a spot check regime” to ensure compliance, which had to balance “the public health risk of queueing passengers in a confined space.”
Concerns about pushing people into a “confined space” for checks would be believable were these people not passengers who already had to queue to sit on sit leg-to-leg next to each other on full, air-tight flights.
The spokesperson went on: “The vast majority of arriving passengers are complying with all the requirements of the Covid-19 related health regulations at the border.” They wouldn’t give me a specific figure of how many were co-operating.
Those who haven’t filled in the tracing form can in theory be fined £100. The problem, if there are few checks taking place, is finding them. Just 10 fines have been levied on those who’d failed to fill out a PLF since the scheme was introduced on 8 June.
Border Force says it is opting for a softly-softly “four Es” approach: engage, explain, encourage and finally enforce. This would be fine if that was actually happening: I received no encouragement to fill out the form, short of one EasyJet reminder a few days before travel.
In a normal year, more than 12 million people arrive in the UK each month. How many of what is admittedly a much smaller figure are currently avoiding contact tracing?
Martin McKee, a member of expert group Independent SAGE, and a public health professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says it was impossible to get data on how the scheme is working – or not.
There is “no overall strategy” according to Mr McKee. “Where does the [PLF] information go to? It’s a bit like telling people to isolate – no one follows it up.
“Are there any standard operating procedures? Are there performance indicators? We have no idea. You’d think we’d have our act together on this by now,” he said.
Never mind the contact tracing app fiasco: we don’t even have the form-based system sorted.
We cannot have a proper contact tracing or quarantine system without this. As Covid-19 cases start to rise again in the UK, people coming into the UK are entering without a trace.
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