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Quarantine: Scientific Advice

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to publish the scientific advice upon which the travel quarantine measures are based.

My Lords, SAGE, the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser and the Chief Medical Officer are clear that when the rate of domestic transmission is high, imported cases represent a small proportion of the total number and make no significant difference to the epidemic. The Home Secretary has agreed to publish a summary of this advice in due course.

In her exchange on 4 June, the Minister said:

“The science advice has been consistent … It is for SAGE to determine when to publish its advice.”—[Official Report, 4/6/20; col. 1531.]

With respect, no: Ministers decide when to publish the advice. The Government’s measures are increasingly met with widespread derision and non-compliance. I therefore urge the Minister to say to SAGE that the advice must be published very soon if it is to have any credibility, otherwise the Government’s strategy in this field will, frankly, collapse.

It is a matter for SAGE when to publish its advice. It published advice from 23 March. As I said in my Answer, the Home Secretary has agreed to publish a summary of the advice in due course.

The noble Baroness makes it sounds as though SAGE was rather lukewarm about this change. Could she tell us whether the national police chiefs’ guidance was shared with it, namely that it would not be the role of the police to conduct spot checks on those who should be isolating, and that they will act only if the public health authority suspects that someone is not following the guidelines? They ask how the public health authorities will know this, since, as the Immigration Service Union says, Border Force officers will not be able to check basic information such as the address at which a new arrival plans to self-isolate. They say that it is a shambles, so was SAGE told how much of a sham these quarantine rules are and is that why we are not being given more detail?

My Lords, I think that Parliament has been given a lot of detail on this. On spot checks, PHE will do dip sampling of 20% of arriving passengers. If information on where to contact people is not forthcoming at the border, a fine can be issued.

My Lords, these regulations have been received with concern, incredulity and, I am afraid, contempt. Does the Minister accept that it is essential that the public have confidence in these measures, because the absence of confidence threatens the public’s adherence to all the Government’s measures?

I agree with the noble Baroness. Indeed, I took the opportunity to speak to Border Force yesterday about how things were going at the border. It had no problems yesterday. Looking at the general public’s compliance with the regulations thus far, there has been a high degree of not only compliance but support.

My Lords, could my noble friend tell me what assessment the Government carried out on the impact of imposing a travel quarantine now on unemployment, tax revenues and the country’s overall health, and whether they will publish the results of that assessment? If no such assessment was made, how could this be considered a responsible decision?

It is definitely for the benefit of the economy for these measures to be reviewed and lifted as soon as possible. Of course, we have to balance the public health risks with the need to get the economy moving. Of course, we will get the economy moving just as soon as we possibly can.

Can the Minister explain the divergences from other European countries that have not adopted such draconian measures and give us some indication of the road map for when these restrictions will be eased? Have the Government costed the economic impact from these measures at a time when we are seeing a general easing of other restrictions?

Each country has its own methods of trying to control the virus, with some implementation of restrictions at the border. We know that Covid-19 will have a huge economic impact and we do not wish to keep some of the restrictive measures in place for any longer than we need to. It is absolutely the Government’s strong desire to get the economy up and running as soon as we can.

In the Commons on Monday, when challenged about the practicality of the quarantine plan, the Home Secretary said

“first of all, this is not my plan; this is a Government plan”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/6/20; col. 15.]

That sounds like a nifty piece of political distancing. We are calling for a rapid 48-hour testing-led programme to allow people to safely exit quarantine more quickly and keep the country open for business; full publication of the SAGE advice on quarantining; a sector-specific support package to save jobs in industries at risk of collapse from the current measures; and clarity on plans and timelines for so-called air bridges. Will the Minister recommend our proposals to the Home Secretary?

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary talked about a government plan because the sort of measures we are putting in place need not only support across government but collective agreement across government. The noble Lord is right that the quicker the testing can be done—testing is speeding up all the time—the better. He will also have seen over the past few months that certain sectors have been more able to go about their business than others, the difficult areas being industries such as hospitality. On air bridges, we are talking to countries across the world about just this—where we can perhaps pair with countries that have similar rates of infection.

My Lords, inbound tourism brings in £9 billion from July to September, but industry experts expect this to drop to £500 million because of the quarantine restrictions. This will cost the tourism industry £650 million a week. The Centre for Economics and Business Research says that more than 90% of Britain’s summer tourism trade will be obliterated. In that light, what specific support are the Government prepared to give to the sector?

The noble Baroness will know, if she listened to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary the other day, that she is in constant dialogue with the Transport Secretary and countries around the world, looking at innovative techniques for lifting restrictions and, as the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, mentioned, at air bridges and similar measures that could allow travel between countries.

My Lords, there has been much talk recently about bridges and travel corridors. Will the Government consider travel gates to block incoming travellers from certain countries, based on the science—a more targeted, risk-based approach to the screening of passengers?

My noble friend is right. We are aiming for a risk-based approach, based on other countries’ levels of infection and the public health of the people of this country. That is entirely what the strategy is about.

My Lords, as other noble Lords have made clear, the logic of bringing in quarantine at this stage is hard to understand. Was this proposal put before focus groups before it was adopted? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are following the science, not the focus groups?

My Lords, mandatory self-isolation is certainly based on the science. The time to introduce restrictions is when infection rates in this country are low. We had some restrictions initially, when we hit the peak. Those restrictions were increasingly ineffective at controlling the virus. Now that we have got the infection rates low, it is time to introduce restrictions to keep the rate of the virus low.

My Lords, objection to and ridicule of this devolved policy is widespread. The SI for England is 22 pages, for Wales 26 pages. They are massively complicated—a valiant attempt to cover every other department’s wish list of exemptions. Scotland and Wales have differing fixed penalties to the England-only SI. As there is no unified UK policy, would it not be better to scrap it now, and not even wait for the three-week review?

My Lords, we would wish to instigate a four-nations approach, and we engage across four nations in an attempt to get unified approach. That has been our aim all along.

My Lords, on 4 April the EU and the UK experienced over 40,000 new Covid-19 cases, and the UK had no quarantine provision. Yesterday, the EU and the UK experienced just 16,000 new Covid-19 cases, a 60% reduction, and we now have a 14-day quarantine provision. How can there be any logic in insisting on quarantine for travellers from EU countries that have negligible numbers of new cases compared to ours, when transmission within the UK is overwhelmingly likely to come from UK residents and not foreign travellers?

The noble Lord makes a point about different rates of infection and the strategies that we have employed. When the initial rate was low, we were trying to contain the virus. Then the peak happened, and measures at the border were seen to be very ineffective. Now that they are now low again, mandatory self-isolation comes in to keep them low.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government’s policy is to relax quarantine rules for elite sports so that soccer clubs can compete in European competitions, Formula 1’s plans for Silverstone can go ahead, and French horses entered for the Derby in three weeks’ time can do so, with appropriate safeguards but without a strict fortnight’s quarantine?

My Lords, it is absolutely the Government’s intention that if we can lift restrictive measures, we will. Many of us are keen to watch the football. I was supposed to be going to the Derby; I do not think I will see it in real time, but I might see it virtually. Based on the science, we are reviewing these things every three weeks.

My Lords, why are frequently flying business travellers exempt, when this increases the chances of spreading the virus? Does this not make a nonsense of the restrictions, and is it not another case of one rule for some but not others?

My Lords, there are certain exemptions for people such as hauliers. We need people to deliver food to this country. In all decisions that the Government make, there is a balance to be struck between public health and not only the economy, but getting essential goods and services to the people of this country.

Sitting suspended.