This week I asked the Secretary of State for Health if the UK Government’s border quarantine restrictions are sufficient for preventing the import of new Covid variants into the UK.
The current hotel quarantine system only applies to 1% of international arrivals and the South African strain of Covid has been found to be prevalent in 35 countries NOT which are on the UK’s ‘red list’.
Indeed, issues with locating a positive case of the Brazilian variant just this week highlights the shortcomings which exist both in the quarantine system and in the ability of the UK Government’s ‘test, trace and isolate’ to successfully track new variants.
As lockdown restrictions are eased across the UK, it is vital that a rigorous hotel quarantine system coupled with an effective ‘test, trace and isolate’ programme is in place to prevent avoidable outbreaks of new and existing Covid variants.
Instead of clarifying the Government’s position, the Secretary of State chose to, as he has been inclined to do so often recently, patronise me suggesting that all is well with the quarantine system, despite just a few minutes earlier describing in great detail the huge logistical effort which was underway in south-east England to try and find the sixth individual who tested positive for the Brazilian variant but had failed to complete the paperwork relating to his test sample on arrival into the UK.
You can watch my full contribution to the debate here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR6-TtX5fck
Dr Philippa Whitford MP
Although the number of cases of the Brazilian variant is thankfully small, it is a warning that being tested in advance does not rule out travellers carrying covid. The South African variant is resistant to antibodies in previous covid patients, and there is concern that both variants may be resistant to vaccine-induced immunity and could therefore undermine the success of the vaccination programme.
The Brazilian variant has already been identified outside South America, and the South African strain is present in 35 countries not on the red list. The arrival of the Brazilian strain via both Switzerland and Paris demonstrates the various routes to the UK from high-risk countries and shows how a traveller can avoid the current hotel quarantine system by separating the legs of their journey. Those infected spent several hours in close quarters with other travellers, who would not be subject to hotel quarantine even now.
I assume that the Government are tracing the passengers from the flights, but with genomics taking some time, the window for worrying variants to get a foothold in the UK before they are discovered is significant. The situation would not have arisen with comprehensive hotel quarantine, as advised by SAGE, so why did the Secretary of State agree to such an inadequate system? Can he tell us the view of the Joint Biosecurity Centre? Does he recognise that quarantining just 1% of international arrivals does not protect the UK from these variants, or protect it from those that may evolve in other parts of the world? Will the Government now review their hotel quarantine policy and make it fit for purpose?
The hon. Lady is completely wrong, and she knows it. Quarantine is in place for 100% of passenger arrivals in this country. In fact, this episode, in which all those we have successfully contacted—all five—have fully isolated and quarantined at home as required, demonstrates that the policy is working. We have further strengthened it and introduced hotel quarantine, and that will no doubt give further reassurance. The hon. Lady’s characterisation is wrong, and some of the descriptions of the organisations involved are wrong as well. I am happy to ensure that she gets a private briefing so that she can understand the situation in future.