Home secretary Priti Patel has vowed to press ahead with Britain’s 14-day quarantine scheme despite hostility from the airline and travel industries and some Tory MPs.
Ms Patel said on Wednesday that the measures were essential to prevent a second wave of coronavirus in the UK.
“Our priority has always been to protect people’s health,” she told the House of Commons. “Pandemics have no boundaries . . . public health will always come first.”
Under the new system, which begins on June 8, arrivals will have to complete an online locator form, then self-isolate for 14 days. Public Health England will conduct random checks on passengers and failure to comply with the self-isolation will be punishable with a £1,000 fixed penalty notice, potential prosecution or even — for foreign nationals — removal from the country.
But a number of Tory MPs and business leaders are opposed to the measures, which they say will further damage the UK economy, particularly the tourism and aviation sectors, which have been hard hit by the coronavirus lockdown.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said companies were “concerned” by the blanket quarantine. He urged the government to set up “air bridges”, or transport corridors, to key markets and trade partners using co-ordinated checks and safety measures.
But Ms Patel played down the idea of an imminent introduction of transport corridors, saying: “This is part of our ongoing dialogue with the industry.”
There are about 40 exemptions to the quarantine rules, including those travelling from the CTA (Ireland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man) and various professions including hauliers, seasonal farmworkers and essential utility engineers.
Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the UK-based European Tourism Association, warned that the policy would cause “sensational damage” to the tourism industry. He said there was widespread disappointment in the industry about the lack of an evidence-led approach by the government.
One industry executive said many travel agents whose business was based on foreign tourism into the UK were considering cutting at least half of their staff.
Business secretary Alok Sharma and transport secretary Grant Shapps have privately opposed the policy because they fear potentially devastating consequences for airports, airlines and tourism companies.
Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, said the proposals would also have a major impact on financial services companies. “It is difficult to understand why seasonal agricultural workers, truck drivers and athletes are being exempted from the rules but service sector staff are not,” she said.
A small group of rebel MPs opposed to the policy were joined on Wednesday by former prime minister Theresa May. “Instead of bringing in measures to close off Britain from the rest of the world, why is the government not taking the lead in developing international health screening standards to save jobs and ensure Britain remains open for business,” she said in the Commons.
In March the government’s scientific advisory group, Sage, dismissed the benefits of a quarantine policy, saying border closures would have a “negligible effect” on the spread of the virus. It said that cases arriving from abroad made up only 0.5 per cent of the total number in the UK.
But in May the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told MPs that the UK had experienced “many, many different imports of virus from many different places” — in particular from European countries.
Boris Johnson on Wednesday insisted that there was a “risk that a greater proportion of new cases” could come from travellers as the domestic coronavirus outbreak came under control.
“We need to take steps now to manage the risk of imported cases triggering a second peak,” he told the daily Downing Street press conference.
Ms Patel said ministers would convene a round table meeting for transport executives on Thursday to discuss the quarantine measures, which will be reviewed every three weeks — with the first review on June 29.
Only when ministers are sure that the risk of imported cases is “suitably low” will they reconsider the policy, she said.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said the government approach looked like a “three-week fudge to spare the government” from accusations that it had failed to get to grips early enough.