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‘No good reason to drop travel checks’

LETTING thousands of passengers with coronavirus enter the UK was a ‘grave error’ that ‘significantly increased’ the spread of the deadly disease here, say MPs behind a damning report.

It is ‘inexplicable’ that checks and restrictions on travellers were dropped in mid-March, with quarantine rules only returning in June, the Commons home affairs committee found. Up to 10,000 infected people may have entered the country in March alone, the MPs were told by one leading expert. Britain was ‘almost unique’ in allowing free access as other nations were shutting borders and imposing airport temperature tests, committee chair Yvette Cooper said.

She added: ‘The government’s failure to have proper quarantine measures in place in March as the infection was spreading fast was a grave error and meant Covid spread faster and reached more people. Many times ministers told us they were following the science but we cannot find any science at all behind their completely inexplicable decision to lift all the self-isolation guidance.’

From late January to early March, during the initial stages of the global outbreak, the UK quarantined 273 passengers mostly from Covid-19 epicentre Wuhan. Non-mandatory advice to self-isolate for 14 days was also issued to arrivals from high-risk countries, such as Italy and Iran.

But all measures regarding passengers from abroad were dropped on March 13 — ten days before the UK’s nationwide lockdown.

This was because, on March 12, Boris Johnson had advised everyone in the country showing symptoms to self-isolate for a week, Home Office chief scientific adviser Prof John Aston told the committee. The Home Office also said that, at the time, imported cases made up 0.5 per cent of infections.

By June 8, when quarantine rules for all arriving passengers were brought in, the virus was on the wane here and imported cases were seen as having a bigger potential impact.

However, the committee said it did not accept that the PM’s stay-at-home advice in March had been ‘enough reason to withdraw all guidance for returning travellers or visitors’.

The MPs were told by Prof Annelies Wilder-Smith, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: ‘If you say there were about 1million people arriving between March 13 and March 23, I think that there would have been at least 1,000 infected people — probably up to 10,000 — who brought it in.’

A government spokesperson said: ‘The Home Affairs Select Committee are incorrect in their assertions. All of our decisions throughout the pandemic have been guided by the science, with appropriate measures introduced at the right time to keep us all safe.

‘And with passengers numbers significantly reduced, the scientific advice was clear that quarantine measures for those entering the country from abroad would be most effective when the UK has a lower level of infection.

‘Therefore, as the virus was brought under control here, border measures were introduced on June 8 to protect public health and help avoid a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS.’