Priti Patel sets strict UK quarantine rules

Seasonal fruit pickers, hauliers and medical professionals will be among only a handful of limited exemptions to a new 14-day quarantine system for anyone entering the UK from next month. Business groups said they were disappointed by the strict new regime announced on Friday evening by Priti Patel, home secretary. Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, the manufacturing trade body, said the overall measure was "isolationist" and urged the government to learn from how countries in Asia responded to the Sars outbreak in 2002 with a common set of standards and procedures. "Such an agreement of standards internationally would allow freight to keep moving, people to get flying and business to happen," he said.

Travellers arriving in the UK from June 8 will have to self-isolate without visitors for 14 days, having shared their contact details with the authorities when they entered the country. Health officials will conduct spot checks at homes and anyone breaching the rules could face fines of up to GBP1,000 under the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 -- or even potential prosecution and unlimited fines or removal from the country.

This approach will damage international business and investor confidence at a time when it is vital to demonstrate that the UK can open for business safely

The quarantine regime is a result of weeks of wrangling between different departments. The home secretary said the measures were essential to prevent infected people arriving in the UK from triggering a "devastating" second wave of the virus.

The quarantine policy will be reviewed every three weeks to ensure it remains in line with the best scientific advice. The government said there would be limited exceptions including road hauliers, medical officials and certain security personnel. Seasonal farm labourers will also be partially exempt -- despite a new "Pick For Britain" campaign to encourage UK citizens to gather fruit -- reflecting the country's reliance on foreign workers during harvest time.

They will be ordered to self-isolate on the property where they are working. Those coming from Ireland, Guernsey and Jersey will be unaffected because they are in the so-called Common Travel Area. But business groups had been pressing for further exemptions, including specialist "fly in, fly out" technicians and engineers needed to service production lines.

They were still waiting to see the full list of those excluded from the requirements.

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Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said business communities around the world would be "deeply concerned" by the quarantine. "This approach will damage international business and investor confidence at a time when it is vital to demonstrate that the UK can open for business safely," he said. Two weeks ago Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron agreed that France and the UK would maintain a quarantine-free corridor with no checks, but the two countries have abandoned that idea. The government said it would continue to "look at" the idea of air bridges between countries with a low infection rate which could be excluded from quarantine.

Ms Patel said: "This is not for today but we should not rule it out in the future." Annelies Wilder-Smith, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told the House of Commons home affairs select committee that she would welcome the introduction of air bridges between countries with similarly low levels of transmission. But she said that would only be appropriate once an effective contact-tracing programme has been established in the UK. "I would have a total travel ban on visitors from Russia, the US and Brazil right now," she said. 

At the start of the Covid-19 emergency, the UK imposed self-isolation on travellers from Hubei province in China, Iran, parts of South Korea and northern Italy. But that guidance was withdrawn on March 13.

Editor's note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here. On March 23 the government's scientific advisory committee, Sage, said that the "numbers of cases arriving from other countries were estimated to be insignificant in comparison with domestic cases, comprising approximately 0.5 per cent of total domestic cases".

Tony Smith, chairman of the International Border Management and Technologies Association, told the select committee he was "surprised" there had not been earlier measures to quarantine air and ferry passengers arriving in the UK. "It seems we are watching other countries and only now falling in line with quarantining."

Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at Bristol University, said it was wrong of the government to have abandoned testing of new arrivals into the UK in early March. "The wrong decisions were taken, when the right decisions would have saved tens of thousands of lives in the UK," he said.

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