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Tortoise Covid Inquiry

Quarantines and travel corridors: a wasted summer?

Tuesday 24 November 2020


In the lull between waves one and two the UK had a window of opportunity. With an average of just 550 new cases a day, this could have been the moment to build an effective national test and trace system and establish screening and testing protocols for new arrivals from high risk countries. This session will focus on these crucial summer months. The question: did the government do enough to prevent and prepare for a second wave? 

UK travel policy during the summer consisted of a constantly-changing list of travel corridors, while the test and trace system was quickly overwhelmed. What was the scientific advice behind the travel rules and did they contain the spread from high-risk countries? Why were there no health checks at airports? And why did thousands of tracers have nothing to do?


The facts:

  • NHS Test and Trace, which is limited to England, has been able to reach just 66 per cent of close contacts since it launched in May – substantially below the 80 per cent required to be effective according to SAGE.
  • Since June, the UK has relied on 14-day quarantines as its main tool to contain the spread of the virus coming from international travel, but has yet to publish the criteria for appearing on the travel corridor list
  • At no point during the pandemic has the UK imposed any requirements for screening on arrival, such as temperature checks or pre-travel testing requirements.
  • A study suggests that the UK’s 14-day quarantine approach wasn’t able to contain the spread of a mutation of the disease that appears to have been imported from Spain by holidaymakers. The Spanish strain now makes up half of all the UK’s cases.

Test, test, test

Test and trace timeline:

  • May 28th: NHS Test and Trace launched in England
  • June: Stories emerge of contact tracers with nothing to do
  • August 10: The Department for Health of Social Care overhauls the project, cutting contact tracer numbers by 6,000 and handing more control to local authorities
  • September: News emerges that people in need of tests are being asked to travel huge distances to reach testing centres
  • September 24: A second attempt at a contact tracing app is launched in England and Wales

NHS Test and Trace’s target of reaching 80 per cent of the contacts of people with covid has now been missed for 20 consecutive weeks, including during summer months when there were far fewer cases. 

Testing capacity is essential for a co-ordinated response to the virus, but towards the end of the summer people struggled to access tests. Boris Johnson blamed this on a spike in demand as schools reopened – a spike that had apparently not been anticipated by SAGE’s models. 

At this point the UK’s testing capacity was around 200,000 per day, virtually unchanged in three months.

The summer might have been a good time to build extra capacity and establish a more far-reaching testing strategy. 

Figures for testing capacity are based on reports from labs on how many tests they have capacity to carry out each day.

Travel timeline:

  • 8 June: Requirement introduced for all foreign arrivals to quarantine for two weeks.
  • 10th July: Travel corridors launched with quarantine-free movement to an initial list of 73 countries.
  • July: As the second wave picks up, countries are gradually knocked off the travel corridor list
  • October 19: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announces plans for a “test and release” system, designed to release people from quarantine if they get a negative test. The plan has yet to come into force. Tests are to be paid for by passengers arriving in the UK at an as-yet unknown cost. 

Travel corridors: Rational restrictions or “quarantine roulette”?

The summer months may also have been a missed opportunity for establishing testing requirements for travel, which are now being prepared long after other countries such as Greece have had them in place.

The government’s decision to pursue the travel corridors policy followed pressure from airlines including British Airways, which joined forces to challenge the blanket quarantine policy in court. A report had estimated that 124,000 jobs linked to aviation were at risk.

There were calls for screening and testing at ports of entry throughout the spring and summer, but the government stuck to travel corridors and 14-day quarantines. As a result, large numbers of flights flew to and from holiday destinations with no screening or testing of UK arrivals.

Decisions on the travel corridor list are based on a combination of Covid-related data points but the government has yet to give a full explanation of its criteria. 

A lack of clear criteria for inclusion on the list and concerns about its impact on the aviation industry prompted John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s CEO, to call it “quarantine roulette”. 


Half of all UK infections traced back to Spanish holidays

A strain of coronavirus that originated in Spain was first detected in the UK in mid-July. It now accounts for half the UK’s coronavirus cases and 80 per cent of Scottish and Welsh cases, according to a study which tracked the movements of various mutations of the virus across Europe.

The study raises important questions about the efficacy of the UK’s approach to travel corridors and its reliance on quarantines. 

Emma Hodcroft, lead author of the study, said:

“What we think happened is that rising numbers of cases in Spain combined with that increase in holiday travel allowed the virus to move to many different countries across Europe and, when it got there, it was able to spread quite successfully.”

She highlighted the lack of screening at airports as a policy failure, and said it was “very likely” that people didn’t quarantine as strictly as they were supposed to.

The study is not yet peer reviewed, but its findings raise questions over why greater precautions weren’t taken when such a large number of flights were arriving from Spain.


Travel restrictions: too little, too late?

The UK stood out during the first stages for the pandemic and start of the summer for having relatively relaxed travel rules. It was one of the last countries in the world to impose restrictions on travel, with 183 countries setting up systems to either screen, quarantine or ban arrivals before the UK, according to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.


Further reading

Frustration as contact tracers on NHS Test and Trace project complain about having ‘nothing to do (Evening Standard)

Testing service wasn’t prepared for increased demand, chief admits (BMJ)

Contact tracers to be reduced by 6,000 in England (BBC)

The case for freedom (The Times – David Davis)

The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker

Shapps aims for new test system for arrivals (BBC) 

Study on UK coronavirus cases linked to Spain

Professor behind the new official guidelines for flying advises against temperature checks (The Express)

Heathrow’s boss describes the rules around travel corridors as “quarantine roulette”. (Sky)

Freedom of Information Request asking for details on criteria for travel corridors deniedCoronavirus: Police issue no fines for travel quarantine breaches (BBC)