Labour: Government left UK “completely exposed” to overseas Covid strains

Elliot Chappell

Nick Thomas-Symonds has accused the government of leaving the UK “completely exposed” to new strains of coronavirus coming to the country from abroad through inadequate quarantine restrictions and checks for new arrivals.

In a letter sent to Priti Patel today, the Shadow Home Secretary raised concerns that the approach pursued by the government has left the “doors unlocked” to Covid variants such as the so-called ‘South African mutation’.

Thomas-Symonds highlighted analysis from the opposition party, which showed that just three in every 100 people travelling to the UK from another country are checked to make sure that they are complying with quarantine measures.

The research by Labour, examining government data, revealed that the ‘isolation assurance service’ run by Public Health England failed to contact over 1.9 million people who were spot checked by Border Force between June and September.

Of the 1,966,394 spot checked by Border Force, only 66,773 (3.4%) were contacted by the isolation assurance service by either a phone call or a text message. The figures show the service had attempted to reach 149,579 people, or 7.6%.

The Shadow Home Secretary argued in his letter that the failure of the service, which is being operated by private company Sitel, “raises further questions about the use of taxpayer money by the government during the pandemic”.

He highlighted that the details of the public contract for the isolation assurance service, such as cost to the taxpayer and penalties for underperformance, have never been revealed and urged the Conservative administration to “come clean”.

Thomas-Symonds asked Patel to answer the following:

  • “How many passengers have been spot checked at the border by UK Border Force from September 8th to December 31st 2020?
  • “What is the latest number of individuals contacted by Sitel and any wider isolation assurance service services?
  • “How many people have had enforcement action taken against them for breaches of quarantine restrictions?
  • “What additional measures have been taken to try and prevent the strain of the virus that emerged from South Africa entering the UK and on what date were any additional measures introduced?

Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan urged the government on Monday to “get a grip” on international travel with greater testing and quarantining procedures for new arrivals to control the spread of coronavirus amid rapidly rising cases.

He compared the experience of those coming to the UK with those arriving in other countries around the world, voicing frustration at the “ease with which people can come into our city, potentially with new strains of the virus”.

Travellers to the UK, coming from a country not in a ‘travel corridor’, must self-isolate where they are staying for ten days unless they take a test. If tested, they can reduce the amount of time spent in isolation to eight days.

The isolation assurance service was established during the pandemic to check compliance with the quarantine requirements. The service contacts randomly sampled arriving passengers to ensure that they are self-isolating.

Guidance states that each traveller can be called up to three times on subsequent days and can then “potentially” be sent a text. The government say each traveller sampled will therefore receive between one and four contact attempts.

Below is the full text of the letter sent to the Home Secretary.

Dear Priti,

I write in relation to the worrying situation regarding the health measures at the UK border.

Recently published government statistics show the worryingly low number of people who have been contacted to ensure compliance with Covid quarantine measures for travellers who have returned back from countries that are not deemed ‘travel corridors’ by the UK government.

As you will be aware, the government’s own published data for Border Force has shown a woeful level of attempts to ensure people have been successfully contacted by Sitel, the company contracted to contact travellers and ensure they are complying with quarantine conditions that the isolation assurance service (IAS) monitors.

Home Office data shows that between 8 June and 7 September 2020, 1,966,394 people were spot-checked by Border Force at the Border. IAS attempted to reach 149,579 people, which equates to 7.6 per cent of those checked by Border Force at the Border. However, successful contact made by IAS to eligible UK arrivals was just 66,773.

This means that IAS successfully communicated with just 3.4 per cent of those spot checked by Border Force when they entered the UK, therefore revealing that just three in every 100 UK arrivals were checked that they were complying with quarantine restrictions that you, yourself, introduced.

These are deeply concerning statistics and show that efforts to track, trace and isolate cases coming into the UK have been completely undermined. There have been consistent failings from the government since the outbreak of the pandemic. It is especially worrying given the concerns regarding mutation of the virus that emerged in South Africa, which the Health Secretary rightly said is “incredibly worrying”.

However, the lack of a robust quarantine system as a result of shortcomings from the government mean that it is virtually impossible to keep a grip on this spread or other variants that may come from overseas, leaving the UK defenceless, and completely exposed, with the nation’s doors unlocked to further Covid mutations. I would be grateful of you could answer the following questions:

  • How many passengers have been spot-checked at the Border by UK Border Force from 8 September to December 31 2020?
  • What is the latest number of individuals contacted by Sitel and any wider IAS services?
  • How many people have had enforcement action taken against them for breaches of quarantine restrictions?
  • What additional measures have been taken to try and prevent the strain of the virus that emerged from South Africa entering the UK and on what date were any additional measures introduced?

It is now clear that an urgent review and improvement plan of quarantine arrangements needs to be implemented, not least as it is concerning that we may be seeing increasing numbers of variant strains of the virus across the world and leaves the UK’s defence against strains coming from overseas effectively non-existent.

I call on you to take urgent action, before further delays cause yet more damage.

Nick

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