The U.K.’s Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock said he makes no apologies for coming down hard on travelers as the country battles to control the spread of coronavirus variants. The U.K is on its third lockdown. The first lockdown began to lift in May 2020 and it was largely successful. A shorter lockdown ended in December and was less effective, partly because it was so short, partly because of the time of year, and partly because of increased meeting indoors and indoor leisure activity in the run-up to Christmas. On January 5, the U.K. went into lockdown for a third time. It is not proving as successful as the first mostly because of a decline in citizen engagement. This, together with the news that the U.K.’s primary vaccine (Oxford/AstraZeneca) is only “mildly effective” against mild and moderate cases of the South African COVID-19 variant, means the government has no choice but to impose more severe punishments and deterrents.
It is worth pointing out that the U.K. government allows Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland to make its own rules on pandemic restrictions, so the announcements made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet refer primarily to England. Wales and Northern Ireland have largely followed English rules, albeit at slightly different times. Scotland has often taken a harder line and the First Minister for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has repeatedly called for a more coordinated approach for the whole of the U.K. She disagrees with Johnson on the number of countries that should be considered high risk and instead takes the view that all international travel carries substantial risk at present. Indicating concern, even distrust, of England’s efforts to control the virus, Scotland requires all passengers arriving at English airports from February 15 whose final destination is Scotland to go into hotel quarantine in England – even if they are from one of the many countries regarded as “low-risk” by the U.K. government.
So what of the new restrictions announced by Hancock on February 9? First, everyone arriving in the U.K. will now have to take two coronavirus tests while quarantining. In addition, travelers arriving in England from 33 high-risk countries will also be required to stay in a ‘quarantine hotel’ for ten nights, remain in their rooms, and if they have a genuine need to go outside they will be accompanied by a security guard. Hancock said the government has already contracted 16 hotels for an initial 4,600 rooms and will secure more as they are needed. Travelers will have to book through an online platform and pay for a quarantine package costing £1,750 for an individual traveling alone which includes the hotel, transport and testing. This booking system will go live on February 11 and applies to those already overseas if they do not return by February 15.
While these rules may be strict, the most important – and controversial – part of Hancock’s announcement related to the punishments for non-compliance. Flouting the rules has almost become a game or a challenge for some, and others simply don’t care. They believe that their need for a vacation outweighs small fines and the prospect of being responsible for lives. It is hoped that the new punishments will make them think twice.
They include a £1,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take a mandatory test, a £2,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take the second mandatory test, as well as automatically extending their quarantine period to 14 days, and a £5,000 fixed penalty notice – rising to £10,000 – for arrivals who fail to quarantine in a designated hotel.
And crucially, anyone who lies on the passenger locator form and tries to conceal that they have been in a country on the high-risk list in the 10 days before arrival will face a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Unfortunately, there will still be some wealthy travelers who will factor in the cost of the fines to their travel budget, but these will not be the norm. The threat of a prison sentence and criminal record however, affects everyone, and there is no option to buy out of that.
The government has reiterated that not only should people not be traveling now, they should not be booking vacations either at home or overseas as the situation is too uncertain to know when restrictions may be lifted. People leaving England will soon also have to make a declaration on why they need to travel and this will be checked by carriers prior to departure. Hancock warned passenger carriers that they will have a duty in law to make sure that passengers have signed up for these new arrangements before they travel, and will be fined if they don’t.
The new rules will come into force on February 15, with further clarification expected on February 11. The U.K. government has given no indication of an end date but it is likely that they will remain through March at least.
The country is currently on target to vaccinate 15 million people by mid-February. Most elderly, extremely vulnerable and health workers have already been vaccinates and those over 70 who have not yet received the first does of the vaccine are urged to contact the National Health Service.