United Kingdom

Hotel quarantine, tags and closing the border: Ministers options to stop new Covid entering UK

Ministers are examining a raft of measures to secure the UK's borders against highly transmissible strains of coronavirus from overseas.

International travel has been slashed to a fraction of what it was before the pandemic struck, but different countries have used different measures to secure themselves against imported cases while fighting the home-grown spread.

The UK has until recently taken a very soft-touch approach to policing both foreign arrivals and British citizens arriving home from overseas travel.

But with the Covid death toll now at a pandemic high ministers are looking at a range of measures that could be introduced to make Britain and Northern Ireland more secure.

Some island nations like Australia and New Zealand have long enforced stringent arrival rules, including blocking entry to some travellers, or forcing the rest into quarantine hotels - often at their own expense.

Here we look at some of the measures that the UK could introduce and how they have been implemented elsewhere. 

Hotel quarantine 

Ministers are in talks with hotel chains over plans to force UK arrivals to quarantine at airports, it was claimed today

Currently travellers arriving in the UK are allowed to disembark and quarantine at their own homes or their destination accommodation

Ministers are in talks with hotel chains over plans to force UK arrivals to quarantine at airports, it was claimed today.

Currently travellers arriving in the UK are allowed to disembark and quarantine at their own homes or their destination accommodation. The self-isolation lasts 10 days, cut to five if they receive a negative test result.

But this system relies on people following the rules and there are concerns over low levels of compliance that could allow the virus to spread.

Instead the Government is believed to be examining plans to place arrivals in a hotel to quarantine after arriving, to ensure the rules are not broken.

Arrivals would potentially have to pay for their stays while they self-isolate for 10 days, or even a fortnight. There are reports today that negotiations are already taking place with hotel chains, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was in favour.

The powerful Covid O Cabinet sub-committee is due to discuss the ideas over the coming days - although a final decision is not likely until next week.

This has been attempted here but not since the early days of the pandemic and that was only on a small scale. 

A group of more than 80 people evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan -  believed to be the epicenter of the pandemic - were flown into the UK and taken to former nurses accommodation at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral.

Their accommodation was kitted out with bedding, games consoles and Barbies ahead of their 14 days in quarantine.

But the scheme attracted negative headlines when the isolated Brits held staff to 'ransom', with one security guard alleging that the evacuees know they can threaten to leave the secure unit and 'get whatever they want'.

One person tried to leave before completing the 14-day stay after his return from China, breaking the contract they signed before they were rescued.

Photographs taken outside the hospital in Birkenhead appeared to show officials pulling up to the barrier outside the building with at least two crates of Budweiser beer in the boot of a car. 

Photographs taken outside the quarantine  hospital in Birkenhead last January appeared to show officials pulling up to the barrier outside the building with at least two crates of Budweiser in the boot of a car

A patient staying at the Arrowe Park Hospital tried to leave before completing the 14-day stay after his return from China, breaking the contract they signed before they were rescued

It forced Health Secretary Matt Hancock to hurry in a new law to give police officers draconian powers to seize suspected patients and force them into isolation in handcuffs. 

The quarantine was not repeated in the UK, but it has been used more successfully abroad, including Australia and New Zealand.

Australia has been quarantining all new arrivals – both citizens and visitors – in hotels since March 29 last year in order to stop cases of coronavirus being imported from overseas.

Quarantine lasts for a minimum of 14 days and a maximum of 24, with limited exemptions for transiting passengers, foreign diplomats, government officials, and oil and gas workers.

Individual states can also grant exemptions at their own discretion, as happened with some athletes arriving for the Australian Open who were allowed to quarantine at private residences instead of government-provided hotels – sparking public outcry.

Quarantine takes place in the city of arrival, regardless of the final destination within Australia, with travellers taken to a hotel directly from the airport.

The government chooses the hotel, passengers are not routinely advised of its location in advance and they are be billed for their stay afterwards.

Anyone arriving with symptoms will be tested at the airport and taken to the hotel to await the result, with their baggage brought separately. Those with no symptoms will be allowed to collect their bags before being put on a bus, which will then take them to the hotel.

Those in quarantine will be tested at least twice – on day 2 and day 12 of quarantine. Provided they test negative each time, they will be released after 14 days. Anyone who returns a positive test will be kept in quarantine until testing negative. Anyone who refuses a test may be kept in quarantine longer.

Guests in the hotels are not allowed to leave their rooms, and have all food brought to them. While the government says that dietary requirements will be taken into account, travellers have frequently complained about the state of the food.

The maximum penalty for breaching the rules is a £6,000 fine, six months in prison, or both – with a further £3,000 fine applied for each day a person continues to break the rules.

Australia has experienced two waves of Covid infections, but has kept both cases and deaths significantly lower than other westernised countries – its highest daily toll of the pandemic was 721 cases, reported on July 30 last year. By comparison, the UK’s worst daily total was 68,053.

Currently, the country reports an average of 12 cases per day and has suffered just a handful of deaths since October last year. Its last death was on December 28.

As a result, there are few restrictions within the country. Bars, restaurants, gyms, shopping centres and other leisure facilities are all open in most states, but a few high-risk locations have mask-wearing rules and limits on group sizes.

The last wave of coronavirus infections the country suffered, between June and September, began in Melbourne amid ‘security lapses’ at the quarantine hotels. One whistleblower alleged that security guards were having sex with new arrivals quarantining at the hotel - infecting themselves with Covid which they then passed on to others.

An inquiry into the scandal found the failings were to blame for Australia’s second wave, including 768 deaths suffered as a result.

Novak Djokovic, pictured on his hotel balcony in Adelaide, has reportedly issued a list of demands for stranded players including a shorter quarantine and access to tennis courts  

Doctors and infectious diseases experts have slammed special Covid rules for celebrities like Matt Damon. The Good Will Hunting star is wife Luciana Barroso, 45, and their daughters, Isabella, 14, Gia, 12, and Stella, 10, are among an elite group who have qualified for an exemption

Tom Hanks (pictured with wife Rita Wilson) was given special permission to quarantine at a Gold Coast mansion so he could film a biopic in Australia about Elvis Presley, despite testing positive to Covid to Australia in March 2020 shortly after arriving from the United States

Last week Australian Open tennis stars were told that they would get no 'special treatment' after world number one Novak Djokovic demanded that the 72 players isolating in hotels be allowed to move to private homes with tennis courts.

The Serb's reported list of demands included a shorter quarantine period, permission for players to visit their coaches, and access to courts where they could train for the tournament in Melbourne.

But state premier Daniel Andrews said authorities would not bend the rules, telling the players that 'there's no special treatment here... because the virus doesn't treat you specially, so neither do we.'

However, other celebs have been given preferential treatment under the system.

Matt Damon  has been allowed to quarantine for 14 days at a large house at Byron Bay in New South Wales instead of having to endure two weeks in a cramped hotel as he prepares to work on a new Thor film with Chris Hemsworth. 

Damon, 50, his wife Luciana Barroso, 45, and their daughters, Isabella, 14, Gia, 12, and Stella, 10, are among an elite group who have qualified for an exemption.

Immigration lawyer Rebekah O'Sullivan said the Good Will Hunting actor had 'privately arranged and funded' his two-week isolation with his wife and children so as not to create 'any burden to the Australian taxpayer whatsoever'. 

Singer Dannii Minogue in July last year was given special permission by Queensland Health to quarantine at a Gold Coast property with her son Ethan.

And Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks two months later was given special permission to also quarantine at a Gold Coast mansion so he could film a biopic in Australia about Elvis Presley, despite testing positive to Covid in March 2020, shortly after arriving from the United States. 

Shut the border to foreigners 

Another option for the Government would be to shut the UK's borders to all arrivals. 

Currently there is a ban on arrivals from South America and South Africa, where specific outbreaks of coronavirus variants have been found.  

Environment Secretary George Eustice told Sky News today a full border closure to all visitors from abroad has been considered, adding that there 'is concern at the moment about the number of mutant strains'. 

But later he told LBC: 'It's right that we are cautious about travel, but we don't think it's right at the moment to close it down altogether and close the border.'

Ministers have long pushed against a total shutdown of all but essential foreign traffic, arguing that it would simply be too damaging for the economy as a whole and airlines in particular. 

However Home Secretary Priti Patel broke ranks this week to reveal she argued in favour of the move as early as last March.

Ms Patel said on the question of whether British borders should have been closed earlier 'the answer is yes, I was an advocate of closing them last March'.

The remarks, made during a Zoom call last night with the Conservative Friends of India group and first published by the Guido Fawkes website, will pile the pressure on Boris Johnson.

Home Secretary Priti Patel broke ranks this week to reveal she argued in favour of the move as early as last March.

The Prime Minister has faced sustained criticism from Labour over why the Government failed to roll-out tougher border restrictions earlier in the Covid-19 crisis.

A requirement for all arrivals in the UK to have a negative test came into force on Monday this week but critics have been calling for months for the Government to introduce the measure.

Ms Patel told the meeting of Tory supporters: 'On 'should we have closed our borders earlier' the answer is yes, I was an advocate of closing them last March''

It prompted a political firestorm, with Nigel Farage, the leader of the Reform UK party - formerly the Brexit Party - immediately pouncing on them as he tweeted: 'What a pity Boris Johnson didn't listen to Priti Patel.'

Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour's shadow home secretary, said: 'This is a shocking admission from the Home Secretary about the Government's failure to secure the UK's borders against Covid.

'Priti Patel's admission, coupled with the complete lack of strategy for testing of travellers, means that the Government has left our doors open to the virus and worrying mutations.

'Ministers now need to - urgently - review and overhaul border policy, whilst taking responsibility for the huge damage their incompetence has done to our national safety and security.'

Electronic tags and monitoring  

It is likely it would lead to enormous civil liberties protests and complaints about the likely huge cost of such a plan, which would involve potentially monitoring thousands of people.

Using GPS tags to ensure compliance is also believed to have been considered. 

This would see arrivals slapped with electronic devices that show if they are staying at home as required. The measure is currently limited to use with convicted criminals on parole and those awaiting trial while on bail.

It is likely it would lead to enormous civil liberties protests and complaints about the likely huge cost of such a plan, which would involve potentially monitoring thousands of people. 

Officials have also looked at the arrangements in Poland, where isolating individuals face 'enhanced monitoring'.

That includes being contacted once a day and made to send a picture of themselves at the location where they are meant to be quarantining.

The pictures are validated using facial-recognition technology and GPS data.

However, the option is thought to have been rejected as too intrusive and difficult to implement on scale.

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