The home secretary is facing mounting calls to publish the scientific advice behind the decision to enforce a 14-day quarantine period on all arrivals into the UK months after the pandemic began.
In a statement to the Commons, Priti Patel confirmed that the measures would be in place from 8 June. A breach of self-isolation could result in a £1,000 fixed penalty notice in England or potential prosecution.
The proposals, first raised by Boris Johnson publicly on 10 May, have been met with significant warnings from the travel and tourism sector over the potentially devastating impact that such a blanket quarantine would have on the UK economy.
Critics have challenged the government over its decision to introduce such a stringent policy at this stage of the pandemic, particularly as there was no enforced quarantine for any arrivals in late February and early March when the virus was raging in countries such as Italy and Spain.
Following her statement, Patel faced calls to publish the scientific advice behind the decision to introduce the measures, with Conservative MPs including former ministers among those questioning the logic of the move.
The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, called for the government to be clear on the scientific advice. He asked in the Commons: “If these measures are necessary from 8 June, why have they not been necessary in recent weeks or from when they were first announced by the home secretary herself on 22 May?
“And can the home secretary give me her assurance these measures from Monday next week have been recommended and approved by Sage [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies]?”
He added: “There has to be reassurance the quarantine has a genuine public health benefit now that according to the government it did not have in past months. And that these measures are not just a three-week fudge to try to spare the government embarrassment for failing to grip this issue at the right time.”
Joanna Cherry, the Scottish National party’s (SNP) home affairs spokesperson, said: “There has been widespread concern that the UK has been out of step with most other countries who introduced public health measures at their borders far earlier in the pandemic.
“The best way for her to address the failure to introduce any measures to date and also the effectiveness of the measures she now proposes, is to publish the evidence and the advice upon which she has relied.”
The Conservative former international trade secretary Liam Fox said: “I’m afraid I simply cannot get my head around the public health mental gymnastics of this policy. If such a barrier was required, why was it not introduced earlier in the outbreak? And if it is a contingency measure against a second wave, why apply it to countries with a lower infection rate than we already have. Surely the answer lies in the government’s test-and-trace system, rather than unnecessary economic isolation.”
MPs asked the question repeatedly as the home secretary failed to give a full answer. Patel told the Commons the government had an “enhanced monitoring” policy at the border in the earlier stages of the pandemic. She said Sage would publish advice in due course and advice from within the Home Office would be provided to the home affairs select committee.
The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, told MPs the UK received “a big influx of cases probably from Italy and Spain” in early March that “seeded right the way across the country”.
Ferguson said it was clear there were potentially thousands of individuals coming into the UK in late February and early March from Spain and Italy, which meant the epidemic was further ahead than anticipated.
The aviation industry, backed by a significant number of Tory MPs, has been piling pressure on the government to introduce so-called “air bridges” – mutual agreements with other countries to allow travellers to fly in and out without coronavirus quarantine restrictions.
Patel said air bridges were being considered, but she cautioned: “Any international approaches will be bilateral and agreed with the other countries concerned.”
Whereas countries such as Portugal and France have sent positive signals that they are open to some form of travel arrangement, others have underlined the challenges with sanctioning travel to and from the UK. Denmark said on Friday it would not consider opening its border to travel to or from the UK until 31 August at the earliest.
The Czech Republic has introduced a traffic-light system to classify other countries according to their coronavirus risk. Britain and Sweden are the only two countries to have been placed in the riskiest red category, meaning Czechs returning from trips there and citizens of those countries will be required to have a test.