UK border control: another world-beating record?

View from hotel balcony, screened by wire mesh, of sunset in Bangkok,
View from Bangkok quarantine hotel window. Photo credit: Sara Johnson

Since 18 January, all travellers to the UK from overseas must show proof of a negative Covid-19 test and quarantine for up to 10 days on arrival. Travel corridors have also been closed, and the government has just announced mandatory quarantine hotel arrangements for arrivals from “red list” countries, along the lines of New Zealand’s policy of “directed isolation”. With only a few days to go before this comes into force, the government has signed up just 16 hotels, providing rooms for 4,600 travellers, a fraction of the 28,000 expected in the first month. But why on earth has it taken so long to introduce such measures?

Closing the stable door…?

The government has been rightly criticised for failing to control the numbers of people coming into the country with potential Covid infections. Before the first lockdown in March 2020, over 18 million entered the UK by air without any screening, but only 273 were quarantined. This allowed a big influx of cases from Italy and Spain. Mass gatherings at sporting events, such as the Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool vs Atletico Madrid football match, have also been blamed for large increases in Covid cases. Matt Hancock and Dido Harding both had financial links to the Cheltenham races. At the time, ministers claimed that they were following scientific advice, although several scientists criticised the events afterwards. Priti Patel now says that she wanted to impose border controls in March, suggesting that she was possibly overruled.

Over the summer, there was a series of confusing U-turns. In June, Priti Patel imposed quarantine on all international travellers arriving in the UK, but by July, travel corridors were set up with many European countries. Quarantine was re-introduced in August after cases rose in France and elsewhere, causing confusion and panic to UK holidaymakers in Europe. But at no time were incoming passengers required to produce a negative Covid test, and thousands left UK airports by public transport.

Although arriving visitors now have to complete a ‘contact locator’ form, there are concerns that false addresses can be given. Some scientists have criticised the measures as inadequate and far too late to be effective. The processes rely too much on trust and light-touch checks: only about 20% of arrivals so far have been contacted by Public Health England in spot checks during the self-isolation period.

Stricter global measures

This lax approach compares badly with tough entry measures enforced by other countries. New Zealand (population 5 million) has been widely praised for introducing stringent Covid-elimination strategies, which kept cases down to just over 2,000, with only 25 deaths. After the first cases were identified, Jacinda Ardern closed the country to foreigners on 19 March, and introduced quarantine for returning New Zealanders, plus strong internal lockdown measures soon after. Entry to the country is still strictly limited. This approach has enabled everyday life to resume near normality. Australia (pop. 25 million) has adopted similar measures, with strict border control and compulsory 14-day quarantine, enabling it to keep Covid cases relatively low.

South-east Asian countries have also implemented strong border controls and mandatory quarantine. Vietnam, having had prior experience of Sars and avian flu, closed its border with China and introduced travel restrictions in January 2020, before most other countries. With quarantine, extensive health checks and track and trace measures, Vietnam (pop. 96 million) has kept its Covid numbers to a remarkable 1,500 with only 35 deaths.

Thai quarantine meal! Photo credit: Sara Johnson

A similar size to the UK, Thailand (pop. 69 million), where one of the authors currently teaches, also has tough, well-organised Covid protection in place. People wishing to enter the country must present the required documents, including a valid visa (business visas need ministerial permission), certificate of entry, fit to fly certificate, negative Covid-19 test (PCR only) within 72 hours of flying, and proof of government-designated quarantine hotel booking.

On arrival at Bangkok airport, travellers are processed individually by a PPE-protected official, including temperature checks. The quarantine period is 16 days at travellers’ own expense, with three meals a day delivered to the hotel room. Temperature checks are twice daily and there are two Covid tests, after 5 and 14 days. In our experience, this is a rigorous but efficient process, designed to ensure that anyone entering the country is Covid-free.

Until mid-December, Thailand’s Covid numbers were impressively low, at just over 4,000 and only 60 deaths – far lower than the UK’s on a single day. In late December, there was a small outbreak in a seafood market, resulting in immediate lockdown and school closures. Numbers are dropping rapidly again.

Too little too late?

An ongoing cross-party parliamentary inquiry concluded in August last year that UK border measures introduced in March 2020 were too weak and “contributed to the rapid increase in the spread of the virus in mid-March, and the overall scale of the outbreak in the UK”. The inquiry also criticised the government for not considering preventive measures adopted by other countries and for lack of adequate guidance to border officers.

The latter is still an issue. Less than 48 hours before the new UK entry requirements came into force on 18 January, border and customs staff reported “very little” information on how to enforce checks on negative Covid tests. Some fines of £500 have been imposed on passengers without valid tests, but people with potential Covid infections continue to be allowed to enter the country anyway. An Express reporter was shocked that she was able to leave Heathrow airport without checks, despite returning from South Africa, one of the countries on the ‘red’ list.

The proposed penalties for flouting new restrictions are severe – £10,000 fines and prison sentences of up to 10 years for those trying to conceal their travel routes – and seem disproportionately harsh after the previous lack of sanctions. 

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For a government which pledged to bring back control of the UK’s borders on leaving the EU, Covid border control has been woefully lacking. On the same day that new entry requirements were introduced, the UK became the country with the highest Covid death rate in the world: world-beating in the worst possible way. The UK may pay the price for previous delays. New border restrictions, which were first presented as temporary measures, now look as if they may last until the summer. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the government really needs to do better all round, starting with an effective test and trace system run by local health authorities.

Vivienne Griffiths is a regular contributor to Sussex Bylines. Sara Johnson is a primary teacher in Myanmar. She is currently teaching in Thailand, while Myanmar borders remain closed.

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