Home Office preparedness for COVID-19 (coronavirus): management of the borders Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.In conducting this inquiry, we recognise that the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges and that the Government had to respond swiftly in circumstances of great uncertainty. We also recognise and are grateful for the hard work of all those responding to the crisis to ensure safety at the border at a time of considerable pressure, from Border Force staff to Government officials and scientific advisers. We recognise too that border measures in isolation are not effective in controlling the virus and must be considered alongside a suite of other measures such as social distancing and lockdowns. However, as one witness told us, all measures are “additive” and the relative absence of firm border measures in the UK earlier during the pandemic is notable. (Paragraph 4)

2.While it is not possible to determine the precise impact that borders policy has on the trajectory of the pandemic, almost every country in the world including the UK has used border measures at some point to try to control or manage the spread of the virus. As well as important public health consequences of those decisions, there are also significant economic consequences. For that reason, we have looked not only at the decisions that were taken and their consequences but also the reasons behind them and the lessons that should be learned. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and as patterns of infection in different countries keep changing, governments across the world are likely to keep drawing upon border measures to help control the spread of the virus. We want to be assured that everything possible is being done here in the UK to ensure that the most effective measures are put in place at the right stage. (Paragraph 5)

Government decisions on the border up to and during lockdown

3.The Government and its scientific advisers faced a huge challenge in early 2020 from a fast-moving virus in circumstances where information was changing constantly and decisions about borders had to be made at pace. Inevitably those decisions were difficult, and some will look different in hindsight. However, scrutiny is important to ensure lessons are learned. As COVID-19 has not gone away, many of these challenges could recur. (Paragraph 32)

4.The incremental introduction of international travel measures during the period from late January to early March corresponded to the practice in other countries during this time and reflects the great uncertainty with which governments were grappling. It was right to adjust and extend self-isolation provisions as the virus became established, starting with Wuhan and China, but also extending provisions to cover places like Italy as the virus spread. Many other European countries were beginning to be affected by coronavirus in the same way, and many took a similar incremental approach as the UK. Evidence shows that the number of cases of direct transmission from China into the UK was extremely small, and that the number of cases from Italy started to fall after 25 February when border measures were introduced. However, it is impossible to distinguish between the impact of border measures and other factors such as lockdowns in Wuhan and Italy or falling overall passenger numbers which may have had a much bigger effect. (Paragraph 33)

5.It is also clear that, overall, the border measures in the UK and many other European countries in early March were not sufficient to contain the cross-border spread of the virus. Had stronger early measures been taken—such as requiring legally-enforceable quarantine for arrivals—it is likely that the spread of the virus could have been slowed. The UK Government did not recognise soon enough the increased risk of importations from European countries owing to the greater amount of travel between these countries and the UK, and the speed at which case numbers were increasing. Many of those returning to the UK during that period were British residents, and we agree with the SAGE assessment that border closures would not have been appropriate. (Paragraph 34)

6.However, the failure to advise people travelling or returning from Spain in particular to self-isolate for 14 days (in line with category 1) or, at the very least, to monitor symptoms and call NHS 111 (in line with category 2) was a mistake. With border measures in mind, there should have been particular surveillance focus on the countries that have high levels of travellers into the UK, particularly Spain and France. We are concerned that we have not seen evidence of that happening during the early stages of the crisis, and that, as a result, Spain was not added to the list of countries for self-isolation measures when it should have been. As a result, large numbers of passengers from Spain continued to arrive, including to attend the Atletico Madrid-Liverpool football match, without any requirements being placed upon them. (Paragraph 35)

7.We are also concerned at the lack of clarity over who was responsible for the continued monitoring and assessment of emerging infection threats from different countries, and for drawing up policy options for Ministers to respond. Any future inquiry into the UK’s handling of COVID-19 should consider not only whether the UK Government should have acted more quickly at this time to prevent cases of the virus arriving in the UK and spreading in the community, but also whether the arrangements for monitoring and assessing emerging threats and considering policy options were fit for purpose. (Paragraph 36)

8.We recognise the difficulties faced by the Government in considering temperature checks, screening or testing at the border, and we also recognise the limited UK testing capacity at that time. However, given the success of targeted COVID-19 testing on arrivals demonstrated by South Korea during early March, more should have been done to assess the feasibility of such approaches in the UK even if they could not immediately be introduced. The lack of existing testing capacity should not have prevented proper analysis of the options and a strategy to develop and expand testing as part of border measures. (Paragraph 39)

9.Overall, in the epidemic phase of COVID-19, insufficient emphasis was placed on the importance of controlling importation from overseas as a method for containing the virus or delaying its spread. The decision by SAGE only to consider measures that could deliver a full month’s delay to the spread of the virus was a mistake and it is very hard to understand why that approach was taken. Additive measures that could have contributed to more effective containment should have been considered, and delays even of a few days alongside the introduction of other domestic measures such as social distancing and lockdown could have had a significant impact on the scale of the outbreak in the UK. (Paragraph 40)

10.Dismissing strict border measures as “draconian” on 3 February was erroneous, as it was their strength that could have made a significant contribution and potentially mitigated the scale of domestic restrictions that were later needed. SAGE papers suggest that prioritising delay of spread rather than suppression of cases was influenced by the conclusion that the virus ought to be treated similarly to pandemic influenza, but this has been retrospectively proved wrong. (Paragraph 41)

11.We are concerned that the UK’s approach to border measures in the period from 13 March to 8 June was very different from countries in similar circumstances. This should have raised serious questions within the Government about whether it was taking the correct decisions. We have not seen any evidence that, at the time it was making its own decisions, the UK Government was examining and evaluating the approaches taken by other countries to controlling importations of the virus from abroad. (Paragraph 59)

12.It is now apparent that many more COVID-19 cases were imported to the UK from Europe in mid-March than was estimated at the time, when, with the exception of Italy, the focus remained largely on potential importations of the virus from Asia. As evidenced by genomic studies and referenced by Sir Patrick Vallance in oral evidence, a large number of instances of the virus—up to 1,356 importation strains and up to 10,000 cases—were imported during the period leading to, and following, the abandonment of special measures for international arrivals on 13 March, even though the overall number of people arriving in the UK was decreasing. Evidence shows it is highly likely that uncontrolled importations of the virus from European countries contributed to the rapid increase in the spread of the virus in mid-March, and the overall scale of the outbreak in the UK. (Paragraph 72)

13.Not having any special border measures applicable to people arriving from Spain and France during March, and only having time-limited self-isolation measures for arrivals from Italy, therefore had a material effect on the number of cases circulating within the UK. Border measures in the UK were lifted rather than extended on 13 March at a time when the number of infections being imported from abroad was still rising. Evidence suggests that thousands of new infections in the UK resulted from cases arriving from Europe in the ten days between this decision and the introduction of lockdown on 23 March. The failure to have any special border measures during this period was a serious mistake that significantly increased both the pace and the scale of the epidemic in the UK, and meant that many more people caught COVID-19. (Paragraph 73)

14.Although the full scale of the epidemic in Spain and later in France was not properly known in mid-March, that is not a justification for the lifting of border measures. Evidence of the epidemic escalating, especially in Spain, was already available. Other countries with the same information as the UK introduced stronger measures—for example, quarantine or limiting international arrivals so that only residents could enter the country—and proved justified in doing so. The UK was extremely unusual in choosing not to introduce measures of this kind; it is evident that this was the wrong approach. (Paragraph 74)

15.The failure of the Home Office and other Government Departments to provide us with the scientific advice behind the decision to withdraw special measures for international arrivals on 13 March despite their repeated promises to do so is completely unacceptable. Despite many appeals for this information, the Government has only drawn our attention to SAGE advice and analysis on 22 and 23 March, ten days after the decision, and to SAGE papers from 3 and 4 February, nearly six weeks before the decision. Given the rapidly changing circumstances of the epidemic, we do not accept that these SAGE discussions adequately explain or justify decisions made on 13 March. (Paragraph 97)

16.The Government has still has not given any indication that it will provide the evidence behind the withdrawal of guidance on 13 March. These appeals have been made to three members of the Cabinet, to one further Minister, and to three of the Home Office’s most senior officials. It is unacceptable that the information we requested concerning the decision to withdraw measures for international arrivals on 13 March has not yet been made available to us. The Committee has been reassured time and again that it would receive copies of the advice it had requested. After more than three months of being repeatedly promised this information, it will be difficult for this Committee to accept that there are any grounds why the Government cannot provide it to us; if there were such grounds, it has had ample time and opportunity to explain what these might be. It could at any previous juncture over this period have offered reasons for non-compliance or agreed terms for information to be given privately or with redaction. In such circumstances as these, the Committee could quite reasonably conclude that the advice we have requested simply does not exist. (Paragraph 98)

17.The Home Office—and other departments of Government if necessary—must either publish or provide to the Committee immediately a full account of the scientific evidence and advice leading to its decision to withdraw guidance for international arrivals on 13 March. If this does not exist in written form, the Committee should receive a full account of what considerations were made and a summary of orally tendered advice, including the dates on which it was provided. (Paragraph 99)

18.The decision to lift all COVID-19-related guidance for international arrivals on 13 March, just as other countries were expanding their border measures, is inexplicable. The Committee does not accept the argument that the introduction of voluntary ‘stay at home’ guidance for households with possible coronavirus infection on 13 March was enough reason to withdraw all guidance for returning travellers or visitors. Advice to stay at home applied only to those households with a suspected case of COVID-19 and was not legally enforceable for another 13 days. The Government stated that its priority in mid-March was buying time for the NHS. Imposing firmer measures on all international arrivals—including travellers from parts of Europe that had never been subject to specific guidance—would have contributed to this to some degree, as part of a cumulative or “additive” approach. Removing measures for international arrivals rather than extending them was the wrong thing to do. (Paragraph 100)

19.Nor do we accept that falling numbers of arrivals justified the lifting of border measures in mid-March. Although passenger numbers started to fall, a further one million people were to arrive between 13 March and lockdown on 23 March, and possibly hundreds of thousands more by mid-April. That is likely to have included thousands of people with COVID-19. (Paragraph 101)

20.We also do not accept the Home Office’s suggestion that no measures were needed after 13 March because imported cases made up only 0.5% of total UK infections. That figure was not calculated until 22 March by which time a million more people had arrived and the epidemic had rapidly escalated in the UK. It is likely to have been substantially higher at the time when guidance was lifted. We set out further concerns about the Home Office reliance on this measurement from paragraph 108. (Paragraph 102)

21.The Government does not seem to have examined the full range of possible measures affecting international travel and considered their additive effect. It is understandable that the Government did not consider it practical or effective to simply restrict flights, not least because of large numbers of British residents seeking to return home. However, the failure to properly consider the possibility of imposing stricter requirements on those arriving—such as mandatory self-isolation, increased screening, targeted testing or enforceable quarantine—was a serious error. In mid-March, the Government had a limited sense of how many infectious people were arriving in the UK, or where they were arriving from, and had limited means of controlling the onward spread of the virus from such cases. In the circumstances, a precautionary approach aimed at continuing suppression of imported cases of the virus should have included more comprehensive measures for passengers arriving from places which had significant numbers of infections. (Paragraph 103)

22.Firm border measures introduced in June were considerably stronger than both the ‘stay at home’ guidance and lockdown restrictions imposed in mid-March. Indeed, they were exactly the “draconian” measures initially rejected by SAGE, enforceable in law. Justifying the decision to lift measures on 13 March on the basis that, at that time, measures applying to international arrivals were at parity with ‘stay at home’ guidance issued the same day is not consistent with the Government’s eventual chosen strategy. That later strategy, discussed in the next chapter, places more onerous legal restrictions on arrivals from overseas than have been placed on any other group in the UK, at any point over the course of the pandemic. (Paragraph 104)

23.It is not clear who was responsible for making the decision to withdraw self-isolation guidance on 13 March, or on what basis. It is hard to reconcile Professor Aston’s suggestion that advice was provided at the time the decision was made with either his own indication that he was not involved in the decision, or his later emphasis on advice given six weeks prior to the decision, on 3 and 4 February. Urgent clarity is needed on what scientific evidence was considered and advice provided in relation to self-isolation measures in the days preceding the decision of 13 March, given its likely significant impact in the number of cases imported into the UK in mid-March. Despite this, no Cabinet Minister or official whom we have asked has been able to provide any explanation for the process by which, and the basis on which, the decision was made. It is not clear who was responsible for gathering the evidence, formulating policy options or scrutinising and testing the advice. It is not clear whether there was a lead department or a lead institution, or which Minister took lead responsibility for the decision. The lack of clarity about the responsibility for decision making in this crucial area is very serious and may well have contributed to mistakes being made. (Paragraph 107)

24.It is deeply concerning that the Government is not able to provide any estimates that were produced at any point of the cardinal number of imported cases during March. The Home Office should have requested advice on the estimated number of importations, and the rough proportion of overall arrivals which that estimated figure represented. While the figure of 0.5% of circulating cases resulting from importation is a useful one and indeed may still be reliable as of 15 July, evidence to us demonstrates that these other figures are also crucially important to deciding border policy and should have been made available to Ministers. Nothing the Home Office had told us demonstrates beyond doubt that these other figures were asked for or made available. Having actual estimates of the number of people likely to be affected by any decision is important and can lead to qualitatively different decision-making processes than just relying on figures expressed as small proportions. Estimates should have been available to Ministers throughout March to allow them to make fully informed decisions. (Paragraph 118)

25.In a public health crisis transparency is crucial, both to ensure that analysis is tested and to build trust and confidence. We welcome the decision to publish SAGE papers. However, transparency cannot be selective without clear explanation, particularly when the advice relates to policy decisions as important as those concerning the introduction of border measures, which affects wide swathes of the economy and disrupts millions of peoples’ plans. Where it has not been able to meet the commitment to publish papers within a month of the relevant meeting, the Government should explain clearly why. (Paragraph 125)

26.The Committee shares the concern of the Science and Technology Committee that bodies advising Government, including Public Health England, are also insufficiently transparent about the nature and content of the advice they are providing. (Paragraph 126)

27.The Home Office has stated repeatedly that it followed scientific advice from SAGE and from its own Scientific Adviser ahead of the Government’s decision to withdraw guidance for international arrivals on 13 March. By the same measure, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser has been clear that advice from SAGE includes an inherent degree of uncertainty. This is reasonable, particularly in a rapidly evolving situation such as COVID-19. However, we have heard no evidence to suggest that the Home Office requested additional information that could have fed into its border policy, nor that it interrogated the inherent uncertainties around SAGE’s advice or around the limited figures it was given. We are forced to conclude, therefore, that the Department took at face value the advice provided; it should not have done so. (Paragraph 129)

The introduction of border quarantine requirements

28.We welcome the Government’ decision to re-introduce border measures. We discuss later what the most appropriate border measures should be. But at a time when COVID-19 infections continue to increase across the world and when hotspots of infection continue to change, all countries are going to need different kinds of border measures to control the spread of the virus for some time to come. (Paragraph 149)

29.It was inevitable that the Government’s reintroduction of border measures was greeted with some scepticism in June. Having removed country-specific guidance in March when other countries were imposing compulsory quarantine arrangements for arrivals, the Government then found itself increasing restrictions just as other countries were loosening them in June—something which was hard to explain, and which appeared inconsistent. This has been exacerbated by the Government’s continued defence of the previous lack of quarantine at the border from March until June rather than acknowledging that, in hindsight, firmer measures should have been in place. Building up credibility requires transparency. The Government should publish the analysis that informed its decision to introduce quarantine measures and explain how it relates to the Government’s wider strategy for overcoming the pandemic. (Paragraph 150)

30.The Government faces a difficult task: how to ensure control of the virus at the same time as getting the economy moving, including international travel, in the safest possible way. It will build more support for the difficult balancing judgements it has to take if it is open about the evidence behind them. (Paragraph 151)

31.It is very disappointing that Border Force officers did not receive guidance on the implementation of new regulations until less than one working day before they came into force. Without enough time to raise questions and properly to digest the guidance, it is likely that avoidable mistakes were made during the first days that the regulations were in force. As the UK begins to exempt countries from the regulations, the task of ascertaining who should and should not quarantine and what information they should provide is further complicated. We ask the Government to ensure that any changes to guidance are provided to Border Force officials as early as possible before they come into operation. (Paragraph 156)

32.We welcome the Government’s attempt to develop an approach to travel corridors which recognises the different prevalence of the virus in different countries and regions. It is clearly sensible to be able to treat travellers from New Zealand, where there have been 52 new cases since 8 June, differently from travellers from the USA or Brazil where infections continue to soar. Given that we will need to be able to manage the changing risk of COVID-19 from different countries for some time to come, setting up a sustainable and agile framework that can be adapted quickly is extremely important. (Paragraph 174)

33.However, we also note the warnings from public health experts in countries like New Zealand and Singapore that are continuing to take a much more restrictive approach to international travel, and who advised against mass-market travel in Europe this summer. We consider in the next section the reintroduction of quarantine for Spain and the criteria for exempting countries. However the travel corridor list is constituted, it is clear that Government must have a system in place for robust surveillance and assessment of any increasing risk in countries where travel corridors have been agreed so that they can be swiftly suspended if necessary to prevent the virus spreading again, and to prevent deeply damaging consequences for both public health and the economy. (Paragraph 175)

34.We welcome the Government’s commitment regularly to review its border quarantine regulations. The move to weekly and daily reviews of travel corridors is welcome as three-weekly reviews were not sufficiently frequent. Far more frequent review appropriately reflects the agility required to prevent a rise in importations. We recommend that the Government publish the methodology and findings of its reviews by means of a statement to the House, and on gov.uk when the House is not sitting. Given the likely increase in travel during the summer holidays, public health surveillance is particularly important for those countries where passenger numbers are highest. The Government should therefore make clear in its statements what criteria it is applying to assess possible risks, the relative weighting of those criteria, and on what basis changes to travel corridors are made. (Paragraph 176)

35.Given the surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases in mainland Spain and the clear and rising risk of increasing numbers of people returning to the UK with COVID-19, a precautionary approach including quarantine for returning travellers is the right one. As we have set out in Chapter 1, the consequences of not introducing quarantine for Spain and then France in February and March were very serious for public health and, as a result, the economy. It is important and welcome that the Government has learned from what happened earlier in the crisis and is responding now to prevent imported cases rising. (Paragraph 192)

36.However, this has undoubtedly been extremely difficult for many travellers who paid for holidays in Spain following the FCO and DfT guidance in the expectation that they would be able to return to work, caring responsibilities, medical appointments and family events on their return, which will now be impossible. Many will face significant financial difficulties as a result of losing pay. Such sudden changes in policy make it even more difficult for businesses in the travel industry which are already under huge pressure. Given the continued risk from COVID-19 and the pace at which it can spread, travel corridors can only work as part of a plan to control the virus if they can also be lifted swiftly based on data when cases rise. However, the Government needs to be much more sensitive to the serious consequences for families and businesses of changing policy with no warning in this way. There should be significant changes to the way such decisions are handled and communicated. (Paragraph 193)

37.The Government has rightly warned now that “no travel is risk free”. However, stronger warnings should have been given at the time the travel corridors were first introduced in early July. The Government’s mixed messages at that time were regrettable. In the case of Spain, it appears from the First Minister of Scotland’s statements that the Joint Biosecurity Centre had already concluded that prevalence rates there were significant higher than in the UK at the time when the travel corridor was established—but that information has not been published. It should have been, both so that individual travellers could be aware of the risks and so that the decision to include Spain at all could be scrutinised. The Government should publish these prevalence rates now and explain why Spain was included on the travel corridors list. (Paragraph 194)

38.The disruption to travel plans and surprise caused by removing Spain from the travel corridor list demonstrates how essential it is that surveillance data is shared with the public openly and frequently. Potential travellers must be presented with the risks of travelling, even to countries on the travel corridor list, while the pandemic is ongoing and the guidance is liable to change at short notice. We urge the Government to publish the details of its traffic light system to distinguish between high-risk (red), medium-risk (amber) and low-risk (green) countries, and how different countries are currently categorised on that system, so potential travellers can assess the level of risk attached to their chosen travel destinations, and to whether quarantine rules might change. (Paragraph 195)

39.Greater clarity would also be helpful on the Government’s overall objectives for its border measures and travel corridors as part of their wider strategy against COVID-19, including how it is balancing public health and economic considerations. We heard significant warnings from public health experts in Singapore and Hong Kong that Europe’s attempt to restart mass market travel and cross border tourism this summer was a mistake and would make it harder to suppress the virus or as a result return to near normal in other sections of the economy. The Government should therefore explain its strategy, including its different objectives on suppressing the virus and opening up the economy, and how it believes its border measures and the current expected level of cross border travel contribute to those objectives. (Paragraph 196)

40.The creation of a Joint Biosecurity Centre ought to represent a step forward in the management of the pandemic, establishing clear responsibility for regular surveillance of travel risks from different countries and publishing clear and transparent analysis, including of international prevalence rates. It should also be responsible for assessing the combined public health impact of all the border measures including assessments of the number of people likely to be arriving with COVID-19. However there has so far been a concerning lack of transparency about the analysis produced by the Joint Biosecurity Centre as even basic assessments of prevalence rates have not been published. (Paragraph 206)

41.The Government’s historic inability to convince the Committee of the credibility of its calculations of the numbers of people who have come into the UK carrying COVID-19 does not inspire us with confidence about its ability to assess the scale of the risk from likely infectious people coming into the country in the future. (Paragraph 207)

42.We are concerned that Ministers do not seem to have access to information about prevalence rates internationally, and there is confusion about what information is held by the Department for Health and Social Care, as well as the interaction between different agencies including Public Health England, NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre and SAGE. We urge the Department to clarify responsibilities and establish a process for greater transparency from this point on. We urge the Department to clarify responsibilities and establish a process for greater transparency from this point on. (Paragraph 208)

43.As we set out in the first chapter, transparency and trust are crucial in public health crises. That is why the Government must now ensure that the analysis behind the introduction of quarantine rules and the introduction of travel corridors is all published—including JBC assessments of the prevalence of COVID-19 in different countries, and the Government’s overall estimates of the number and proportion of people arriving in the UK who are likely to have COVID-19. (Paragraph 209)

44.It is not clear exactly which Government department or agency is ultimately responsible for coordinating border policy. Evidence from the Home Secretary suggested important roles for the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and the Department for Transport as well as the Home Office and Border Force. Given that the Home Secretary announced the border quarantine policy it was surprising to discover that she did not expect to be involved in the decisions on travel corridors and that the Home Office wasn’t briefed on prevalence rates for different countries. While it is appropriate that all Departments carry out work within their remit, good coordination and some overall leadership is required for border policies to work coherently. Otherwise, there is the potential for confused policy-making and contradiction between Government departments, like that shown by the inconsistency between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for Transport on travel advice. This would likely reduce public confidence in the measures as they are introduced, and as they vary. We note that the COVID-19 Operations committee appears to be taking the decisions on border policy and we welcome a cross-Government process to coordinate different departments and ensure that decisions are consistent, and evidence based. However, it still resulted in different advice emerging from the FCO and DfT, and it remains unclear which Department retains lead responsibility for border policy. One accountable Department should be clearly charged with lead responsibility. We believe that should either be the Cabinet Office or, as the Department with overall responsibility for border operations, the Home Office. (Paragraph 214)

45.It is concerning that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Transport have issued contrasting advice to the public on more than one occasion, at a time when providing clarity about the new travel corridors and nurturing confidence in them is of great importance. The Government must ensure that its communications are consistent and accurate across all departments. We recommend that one department leads on communications in this matter, and works constructively with other departments and associated bodies, such as public health authorities, to make sure all appropriate guidance and advice is clearly reflected. The Government must review differences between Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice and Department for Transport air corridor countries as an urgent priority, with a view to reconciling discrepancies. Where those departments are not able to agree, the Gov.uk website should clearly explain why this is the case in order to allow would-be travellers to make informed decisions before using travel corridors. (Paragraph 215)

46.We are concerned that there is not total agreement between all four nations of the UK over which travel corridors should be implemented. While we respect that matters of public health are devolved, we encourage the UK and devolved governments to work more closely together to ensure there is a single, four-nations approach to measures at our border. Disjointedness risks deepening damage to the aviation industry and inhibiting public confidence. It is, however, notable that the First Minister of Scotland has quoted figures from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, to explain the decisions her Government had made to extend, or refuse, travel corridors. The UK Government should do the same. (Paragraph 216)

47.The Government’s estimate of compliance with its enforcement regime for border quarantine is unconvincing. That the estimate is so high should be grounds for healthy cynicism and interrogation. A better method for estimating the true compliance rate is required, based on routine publication of the following figures:

This will allow oversight of the entire process. These data should be published fortnightly, to mirror the work undertaken by the National Police Chiefs’ Council to publish fortnightly totals of the number of Fixed-Penalty Notices issued under lockdown Regulations. (Paragraph 223)

48.Effective quarantine arrangements require high levels of voluntary compliance, even more so when enforcement is limited. The suddenness and lack of transparency behind the decisions about Spain may have consequences for enforcement if travellers remain sceptical about the policy or face financial pressures as a result of not being able to return to work as planned. It is important for Government to build confidence in the decisions it has taken and the justification for them, and also to make sure that people can afford to comply. (Paragraph 224)

49.Border quarantine restrictions are likely to remain in place for some time, particularly if there is now emerging agreement that cases of COVID-19 could increase in the winter months. The UK’s approach to its borders will have to become more flexible in order to respond rapidly to the contours of the pandemic. We recommend that the Home Office, in coordination with the Department for Transport and Department for Health and Social Care, investigates urgently the viability of introducing widespread and targeted tests at the border, as in Iceland, Hong Kong or South Korea. Now that testing capacity in the UK has increased, the Government should be ready to learn from other countries and should examine what role testing or screening could play, including the ability to target particular flight routes. We agree with the Government that a testing and tracing system alone is not currently enough to address the importation risk from overseas travel, especially from high-prevalence countries like Brazil and the USA. However, the Government should look at international examples and develop testing further. It should assess what role testing could play alongside quarantine and travel corridor measures. This could require close coordination with airports and others to access flight and route-specific information over and above what is readily available. (Paragraph 227)

50.As passenger numbers rise and interactions between Border Force officers and arrivals increase, it is crucial that there are no lapses in PPE availability for officers on the frontline who have worked admirably in difficult conditions for several months. The Government owes it to hard-working officers to ensure that they are protected and feel safe so they can continue in their duties. As part of each review of border quarantine measures, Border Force and the Home Office should conduct a reappraisal of the appropriate level of PPE that should be provided for Border Force officials, and a nationwide assessment of stock levels to ensure that staff have everything they need. (Paragraph 232)

51.Concerns about provision of PPE to key workers have been a recurring theme during the COVID-19 pandemic. We understand that Border Force’s provision of PPE to its staff has been based on PHE and WHO advice. However, Border Force officials must be able to feel safe while carrying out their vital work in particularly difficult conditions. This should include wearing masks where staff feel safer doing so. (Paragraph 233)

52.Given the widespread concern about the potential for a second wave, and for a rising number of infections toward and during winter, it is likely that some form of border quarantine mechanism will be required for the foreseeable future to avoid the possibility that imported cases and strains could compound these challenges. Professor Teo Yik-Ying predicted that Singapore would maintain border restrictions at least until 2021. (Paragraph 234)

53.Implementing border quarantine measures over any time frame is indeed disruptive. However if applied swiftly, relaxed appropriately, and justified properly using the full range of scientific evidence available, evidence from other countries demonstrates that they are an effective tool to assist in keeping COVID-19 from spreading into countries with a relatively low level of infection. We have concluded that the UK’s experience of COVID-19 has been far worse as a result of the Government’s decision not to require quarantine and thus reduce the number of imported strains during March. (Paragraph 235)

54.Keeping measures in place while closely monitoring travel corridors and other exceptions will be important to ensure that the UK does not reimport unmanageable levels of COVID-19. This is particularly important when there is doubt about the affordability—both economically, and in terms of goodwill—of a second national lockdown, and when seasonal pressures on the NHS begin to build over the autumn and into the winter months. In a situation as fast-moving as the COVID-19 pandemic, any delay in controlling new infections can have profound consequences; it is therefore of paramount importance that the Government reviews its border measures weekly and is able to respond quickly to changing patterns of infection, including by introducing further restrictions if needed. We do not take lightly the potential burden on individuals and the economy from closing borders and requiring quarantine, as well as the potential damage to the economy and to public health if the virus takes hold again; we also recognise that it can only be one strand in a wider, larger strategy of disease control. However, border health measures must form crucial part of any Government strategy to obtain and maintain control of the virus over the months to come. (Paragraph 236)

Published: 5 August 2020