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

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30th July 2020

UK House of Commons
Home Affairs Committee

Fifth Report of Session 2019–21

The Government and its scientific advisers faced a huge challenge in early 2020 from the international spread of COVID-19, in circumstances where information was changing constantly and decisions about borders had to be made at pace. Almost every country in the world, including the UK, has used border measures at different stages in the crisis to help control the virus. This report examines the UK Government decisions and the reasons behind them to ensure that lessons can be learned as the pandemic continues.

From late January to early March, the UK gradually introduced a series of international travel measures including the quarantining of 273 people mainly from Wuhan, and non-mandatory guidance to self-isolate for 14 days for travellers from designated highrisk countries. The list of countries was incrementally expanded and by mid-March included China, Iran and Italy but not Spain. Advice from SAGE at that time was against introducing wider quarantine measures or testing at the border.

That early introduction of measures was in line with other countries, and the Government was right to adjust and extend provisions as the virus spread. However, it is clear that 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. The UK Government did not recognise soon enough the increased risk of importations from European countries, and not advising people travelling from Spain to self-isolate was a problem. Had stronger early measures been taken, we conclude that is likely that the spread of the virus could have been slowed.

On 13 March, the Government withdrew its self-isolation guidance for arrivals from specific countries and for almost 3 months—until 8 June—there were no border measures in place. No reason was given for the withdrawal of the guidance at the time. Other countries at that time were introducing more comprehensive measures, including quarantine, self-isolation, testing and screening. The UK’s approach was highly unusual.

Evidence suggests that thousands of new infections were brought in from Europe in the ten days between the withdrawal of guidance and the introduction of lockdown on 23 March. It is highly likely that this contributed to the rapid increase in the spread of the virus in mid-March and to the overall scale of the outbreak in the UK. The Committee therefore concludes that 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.

We asked the Home Office and other Government departments to provide us with the scientific advice behind its decisions. Their failure to do so despite repeated promises to provide the information is completely unacceptable. It is not clear, therefore, who was making the decisions about borders in March, nor on what basis such decisions were made. We find that this lack of clarity is very serious and may well have contributed to mistakes being made.

Read the full House of Commons report