Up until yesterday, the UK has been relatively relaxed on its Covid-19 travel policy.
Citizens have been “advised against all non-essential international travel’ – in stark contrast to countries that have banned movement – and there has been no quarantine period for anyone arriving back in the UK, which other countries, too, have implemented.
But all that changed when the Government announced the latter policy.
What does this mean?
Now, anyone arriving in the UK from abroad – be it by flight, ferry or other means – will have to self-isolate for fourteen days when they return to the UK.
In addition, international arrivals will be subjected to “a series of measures and restrictions at the UK border”, such as giving their contact and accommodation details – presumably so that officials can later check they are following the rules.
They will also be asked to download and use the NHS contact tracing app.
When do the rules come in?
The Government has said the quarantine measures will come in soon, although hasn’t said when.
Some suspect they will be introduced at the end of May.
Are there any exemptions?
Yes. Travellers from the Common Travel Area, including the Republic of Ireland (which has a 14-day quarantine period too), are exempt from these measures.
France was also excluded from the rule on Sunday.
A joint statement between the UK and France explained the rationale for this. It said that the two countries need a “close bilateral” relationship in order to fight Covid-19.
“[T]he Prime Minister and the President agreed to work together in taking forward appropriate border measures. This cooperation is particularly necessary for the management of our common border”, the statement continued.
Furthermore, there will be exemptions made to support national security and infrastructure requirements.
More details of these will be “set out shortly”, according to the Government.
One question people will ask is why has the Government imposed this ban only now, especially as other countries (Israel, Australia, Australia, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Ireland, Greece and Turkey) have all had the policy, with many of them ordering it in March.
The Government’s main rationale is in its Coronavirus FAQs document:
“The scientific advice shows that when domestic transmission is high, cases from abroad represent a small amount of the overall total and make no significant difference to the epidemic. Now that domestic transmission within the UK is coming under control, and other countries begin to lift lockdown measures, it is the right time to prepare new measures at the border.”
Furthermore, on April 10, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, uttered similar sentiment when asked why the Government has not closed its borders:
“[O]ur scientists have been very clear from the outset that [closing borders] would not work as a measure to prevent the ingress of coronavirus into the UK. Coronavirus is now in the UK and transmitting very widely… We will likely go back to low levels of transmission and the virus will continue to be here in and around us in our communities I suspect for a very long time even if we can keep the levels right down.”
Given that the Government had to repatriate tens of thousands of Britons over the last two months, this might explain what appears a delayed response.
While getting these people back, it would have been much harder to contain the virus.
Only now that the UK peak is declining, and that transmission rates are under control, is the Government more confident that measures, such as the quarantine, have room to work.
Are there any problems with the plan?
One thing people will be keen to know is how the Government intends to enforce travel rules.
Israel has done this by using government facilities, where people can self-isolate and be monitored.
There’s speculation the UK’s Border Force will carry out checks.
The question is how resource-intensive this will be – depending on where people isolate, and how many do it.
There’s also a cost element; the Government has said it will arrange accommodation for travellers who cannot “demonstrate” they’re able to do it for themselves.
But what is this accommodation, and is there a big bill?
Furthermore, the Government will have to ensure that people do not try to bypass the rule – by flying to France and then the UK.
Travel industry insiders, too, are extremely nervous about the move – having already had 20,000 redundancies.
Daily arrivals from flights have already gone from 300,000 a day to around 15,000 average.
The quarantine will no doubt reduce their business even more; people who have jobs where they need to be on site simply cannot manage to go away (if they have to self-isolate for two weeks afterwards), and city breaks will lose their appeal.
There will be increasing calls for the Government to help.
Farmers, too, are concerned given that they need fruit pickers to fly over for the summer.
We can expect these concerns to become more pressing over the next weeks.
How long will this last for?
All remains to be seen.