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Covid-19: Screening for UK Entry

Volume 674: debated on Monday 23 March 2020

9. If she will take steps to ensure that people entering the UK are screened for covid-19 symptoms. (901687)

We are facing an unprecedented threat from covid-19. In response to that, an enhanced monitoring process was implemented by Public Health England during the containment phase to monitor direct flights and identify any ill passengers from affected countries. However, the UK Government do not intend to introduce port screening measures such as temperature checks, as the scientific advice suggests that they simply do not work.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but can he tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that British citizens returning from high-risk countries are fully aware of the need to self-isolate on their return? Will he also promise that any advice that he gives is shared with the Governments of the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, and also the territories and dependencies? They all need advice, support and help during this very difficult time for our country.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and he raises an extremely good and important point, as always. All aircraft flying into the United Kingdom will have an announcement on the symptoms and what to do if any passengers have those symptoms. In the UK, that has been enforced by a notice to airmen filed with the Civil Aviation Authority. In addition, the Government have made sure there are posters and leaflets containing public health information in all international airports, ports and international train stations. The need to self-isolate when people have those symptoms is critical, and I will take up his suggestion and make sure that advice is propagated to all the other Administrations to which he referred.

Will the Minister and the Home Secretary pass on huge thanks to Home Office staff, Border Force staff and the police, who are working immensely hard on the response to the coronavirus? Given that other countries have mandatory quarantines in place for people arriving and that the Government in this country withdrew on 13 March the previous advice for travellers coming from high-risk countries such as Italy to self-isolate, does the Minister accept that it is hard to understand why there is no guidance on self-isolation on a precautionary basis for travellers coming from high-risk countries? Will he and Home Secretary look at that issue again? Will they also work with the Home Affairs Committee to ensure that they can attend remote meetings to answer our questions during this crisis?

First, may I echo the right hon. Lady’s comments about the fantastic work being done by civil servants and staff of various Executive agencies? As she has said, they are doing an incredible job in very difficult circumstances. On mandatory self-isolation for people returning from high-risk countries, she is right to say that the advice changed. However, let me reassure her by saying that it is under continual and ongoing scientific evaluation. The Home Secretary and I have both asked recently for refreshed scientific advice, and that is being monitored almost daily. If the scientific advice says that the safety of our country requires a further change in policy, we will certainly do that in response.

On the right hon. Lady’s question about enabling remote hearings for her Select Committee, I am sure that civil servants, officials and Ministers at the Home Office will do exactly that if required, to make sure that her Committee can function and discharge its scrutinising responsibilities, regardless of our current circumstances.

In previous Home Office questions, I have asked for reassurances from the Home Secretary that those who enter or seek to enter illegally from France are immediately returned, but I have not received that absolute reassurance. As we have a pandemic going on, it is even more important that people who seek to enter illegally are first apprehended, and are then returned, tested and, above all, put into isolation. Can the Minister reassure me that that is going on?

Significant resources are being put into protecting the short straits, particularly the crossing in the direction of Dover. When people make that crossing cladestinely, they are met by the relevant officials, particularly from Border Force and from immigration enforcement. Of course, one of the screening checks now being done relates to their health, to make sure that if they need to be isolated to avoid the disease being transmitted onwards, that happens. On returns, we are currently bound by the Dublin regulations, but once we exit the transition period, we will not be and there will be an opportunity for us to form our own policy in this important area.

Overwhelmingly, people entering the UK in Orkney and Shetland do so because they are coming off cruise ships. That traffic is currently suspended, as a result of the businesses themselves suspending it. Will the Minister reassure me that if these businesses were to try to reinstate cruise ship business before it was safe to do so, steps would be taken to prevent their doing it?

Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said previously, the scientific advice is at the forefront of the Government’s thinking and there is no question at all of allowing any unsafe operating practice—by cruise ship operators or anyone else. The Government will not contemplate allowing this business to happen until the scientific advice categorically states that it is safe.