Covid-19 quarantine at UK borders may exclude countries with low rates | World news

Travellers from countries with low coronavirus infection rates could be able to travel to the UK via so-called “air bridges” after an initial blanket quarantine, the transport secretary said on Monday, prompting calls for clarity over the government’s confusing approach to the border.

Grant Shapps told MPs the government should consider allowing travel between the UK and countries with an R-number – a key measure of transmission – below one to try to boost confidence in aviation travel.

His remarks came as it emerged that proposals to enforce quarantine at the UK border, expected to be unveiled this week, would cover sea and land arrivals as well as air.

R, or the ‘effective reproduction number’, is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread. It’s the average number of people on to whom one infected person will pass the virus. For an R of anything above 1, an epidemic will grow exponentially. Anything below 1 and an outbreak will fizzle out – eventually.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the estimated R for coronavirus was between 2 and 3 – higher than the value for seasonal flu, but lower than for measles. That means each person would pass it on to between two and three people on average, before either recovering or dying, and each of those people would pass it on to a further two to three others, causing the total number of cases to snowball over time.

The reproduction number is not fixed, though. It depends on the biology of the virus; people’s behaviour, such as social distancing; and a population’s immunity. A country may see regional variations in its R number, depending on local factors like population density and transport patterns.

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, in his address to the nation on 10 May announcing the gradual easing of lockdown measures, served notice that quarantine would be imposed on air passengers arriving in the country.

The plans are set to extend to all arrivals into the UK with a number of exemptions, reportedly including hauliers and Covid-19 research scientists.

Ministers have suggested that travellers will be asked to quarantine for 14 days when they enter the UK, either in accommodation of their choice or provided by the government if there are no other options. An implementation date has not yet been announced.

A No 10 spokesman said that once the quarantine was in place, it would be reviewed every three weeks. During transport questions in the Commons on Monday, Shapps said consideration should be given to relaxations for countries with low rates of infection.

Shapps said: “It is the case we should indeed consider further improvements for example things like air bridges enabling people from other areas, other countries, who have themselves achieved lower levels of coronavirus infection to come to the country, so those are active discussions that go beyond what will initially be a blanket situation.”

The scientific rationale for such a move has been called into question, prompting increased calls to publish the advice provided to the government by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the team of advisers informing the response to the crisis.

Lucy Moreton, of the Immigration Services Union, said: “It appears to be all politics and no science.”

The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said: “People will want a clear sense of grip and competence from the government’s handling of this crisis, so it is deeply worrying to see such a lack of clarity.

“Ministers need to be open about the evidence their decisions are based on, and give consistent, clear messages on quarantining decisions, both generally and in relation to particular countries.

“This is especially concerning given that the home secretary has still not published the evidence upon which the UK government’s quarantining policy prior to the lockdown being imposed on 23 March was based. This needs to happen urgently, and lessons need to be learned.”

Britain’s aviation and tourism industries warned that the quarantine plan risked worsening the economic impact of Covid-19. Michael O’Leary, the outspoken chief executive of the budget airline Ryanair, on Monday said the proposals were “idiotic and it’s unimplementable”.

Air travel is down 99% year on year, maritime passengers are down 88.7% and international rail travellers 94%. Eurostar is down to one service to Paris and Brussels a day for essential travel.

There has been mounting criticism of UK border controls in the run-up to the crisis. It emerged that 18.1 million people had arrived in the UK by land, sea and air between 1 January and 23 March and only 273 had been formally quarantined.

A government spokesperson said: “The government approach has always been guided by the latest scientific and medical advice which showed that placing restrictions at the border would not have had a significant impact on the spread of the virus. In addition, passenger arrivals in the UK at the end of April were down by 99%.”

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