Parliamentary hearing (APPG) on the easing of Covid restrictions and international travel: Part 2

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After listening to a panel of experts responding to questions about international travel from MPs and peers of the All Party Parliamentary group (APPG) on coronavirus I see a very clear red light alerting me of the dangers of travel.

The experts consulted were:

  •  Lucy Moreton: Professional Officer for the Immigration Services Union (ISU), which represents border immigration and customs staff in the UK.
  • Dr Gabriel Scally: Visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of the Independent Sage committee.
  •  Professor Deenan Pillay: Professor of Virology at University College London and a member of Independent SAGE.

With the current green, amber and red streams how confident can we be about the green stream?

Dr Gabriel Scally said that he doesn’t believe in red, green and amber classifications; the importance is either quarantine or not quarantine. Many people travelling are going home and will use the most useful route for them; this route may travel through green or red countries. Whether a traveller has come from a green or red county is of little interest to him. His main interest as a Public Health doctor is managing people arriving from abroad.

Professor Deenan Pillay told MPs that people queuing for hours indoors in the immigration hall before going on to quarantine “makes a nonsense of things.”

How many people are arriving per day?

Lucy Moreton said that about 20,000 people/ day are entering UK.

Where they should be complying with quarantine rules, how that is happening?

Moreton replied that have little to no idea if people are complying. Evidence to previous groups and the Home Affairs Select Committee shows that less than one percent of those required to isolate are checked.

How are people processed?

At the border, passengers have quite a few forms that should have been filled in. At least 100 fake coronavirus test certificates are used by UK arrivals every day. Border officials are forced to take travellers’ Covid-19 test paperwork at ‘face value’ and just accept results are negative; they are often written in a language foreign to the official.

Lucy Moreton said travellers’ documents in anything other than English often simply had to be “taken on trust”.

Are border officials able to verify proof of a negative coronavirus test?

Lucy said “We are not, is the simple answer. It’s predominantly taken on trust.”

They have to be in one of four languages – so if it’s in English and there’s a spelling error, they have an outside chance of spotting it.

“Otherwise, they’re taken on face value – do you have that piece of paper or email or something on your phone that broadly suggests you might have taken a test? There are a series of code numbers which defines exactly what type of test that is, and the border force has a list that they can check it against, but these things are very easy to knock up electronically, unfortunately.”

How about the introduction of e-gates to lower queue times?

Moreton said that while the introduction of e-gates could alleviate queues, the machines can’t check the pre-departure test certificates and will rely on people ticking forms confirming they’ve had a negative test, which could lead to a lack of compliance.

How many are you not catching?

Lucy also didn’t know how many more than said the 100 fake certificates there might be “It’s inherently unknowable – we don’t know what it is we don’t know.”

She said “We trust people when they say they’ve not been in a red list country in the last 10 days. We trust people when they say they’re going to 2, Acacia Avenue to quarantine.

“The whole thing is all based on an assumption that people will do the right thing. But I’m not sure that the behavioural studies indicate that they do.”

Is the very process a breeding ground for infection?

“Very much so. When the queues are slow there is risk to passengers and border staff. The time queuing is 2-3 hours in the immigration hall in larger airports; this translates to 6-7 hours from aircraft to leaving the airport.”

Moreton explained that it was not possible to segregate people depending on which country they had come from in immigration halls.

 “If you have got someone arriving from a country where you don’t have to go into a hotel quarantine, who has managed to catch the virus from someone who does, you may have isolated the person… but the person who bumped shoulders with them in the airport who has just vanished off into the wide blue yonder, you’ve no way of knowing who that is.”

Questions to the scientists: What is the point of a Covid-19 test 72 hours before travel given the example of a case from India to Hong Kong. Can you rely on a test 72 hours before getting on a plane?

A negative test may mean no infection, it may mean that the quality of the test was poor, and infection was not picked up or there may be a fraudulent certificate.

Dr Gabriel Scally said there was nothing ‘bio-secure’ about the system.

The experts warn cases of Indian variant could be ten to twenty times higher than those detected so far. This week the Indian variant has been added to the red list. The real incidence of the Indian variant could be up to twenty times higher than 103 cases detected so far. This is because only around five to ten per cent of positive swabs in the UK are sent to laboratories where they are scanned for variants. Adding India to the red list so recently amounts to “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

If you had Boris Johnson were in an elevator for 30 seconds, what would you say?

Professor Pillay responded with: “If I was in a lift with Boris Johnson I would say if he had responded to Covid-19 with the speed that he responded to the Europe Super League proposals then we would be in a much better place.”

The APPG on Coronavirus is carrying out an ongoing cross-party inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and will be using today’s evidence session to make follow-up recommendations on border policy and international travel, after initially recommending securing the UK’s borders in August 2020.

“The government should be actively discouraging foreign travel and be transparent about the risks it carries, rather than using up a traffic light system that gives a false sense of security.”

The APPG evidence session on Covid variants, borders and international travel is available to watch here.

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