The furore over a 14-day quarantine for UK arrivals grew today as a Cabinet minister admitted it may be partially ditched as other European countries were closing their doors to millions of British summer holidaymakers.
The controversial quarantine measure is due to come into force next Monday but Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis signalled that it could be swiftly scaled back in the face of widespread opposition from Tory and other MPs.
He said it could be “fine-tuned” as ministers struggled to explain why it was being imposed now and not when the epidemic first hit Britain around three months ago, with the infection sweeping in particularly from Spain and Italy.
Another leading scientist also questioned whether it was a “useful measure” given that Britain appears to have a far higher infection level than many other countries, as well as one of the worst Covid-19 death tolls at nearly 50,000, according to official figures.
The restriction makes it far less attractive to travel abroad for a summer holiday given that families would have to self-isolate for 14 days on their return.
But even if the measure was watered down, possibly through the use of test-and-trace, several European countries were already making it clear that Britons were not currently welcome, given the high levels of coronavirus here, or that they will face restrictions which would spoil many holidays.
Greek tourism minister Harry Theoharis said summer holidays in his country would not be for “the masses” of British tourists as for most of them there would be a minimum isolation period of seven days.
Holland opened its borders to a swathe of European countries from June 15 but Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “We do not want British people and Swedes here at the moment. If they do come, they will have to go into quarantine for two weeks.”
Spain’s tourism minister María Reyes Maroto has stressed UK coronavirus figures “still have to improve” before her country could receive British tourists .
Germany plans to lift a travel ban for EU member states and the UK from 15 June but only if coronavirus infection levels in those countries allow it to do so.
Portugal is welcoming British tourists and France is expected to lift a tit-for-tat quarantine for UK visitors imposed after the British Government announced its 14-day self-isolation rule.
Several European countries imposed stricter lockdowns than Britain and appear to have got on top of suppressing Covid-19 quicker, with one report suggesting the UK had more deaths confirmed yesterday, 359, than the rest of the EU.
The Government is understood to be in talks with Spain, Greece, Portugal, France and other holiday destination countries about “air bridges” with the UK which would allow millions of British sun-seekers to fly this summer.
Mr Lewis said alternatives to quarantine were being worked on and the policy would be reviewed in three weeks’ time.
“Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’s team is looking at work we can do with countries around the world to look at how we can increase travel when it is deemed safe to do so, including arrangements potentially such as international travel corridors, whether we even remove self-isolation measures and safely open up routes to and from countries with low-transmission rates,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Latest figures suggest there are around 8,000 new cases of coronavirus a day, though the Cabinet minister said the lockdown meant community transmission had been falling quickly.
“Even if a [transmission] rate in a certain country is lower than ours, any single person who comes into the country who is potentially carrying the virus makes a marginal impact,” he added. “The reality is that we want to stay ahead of this. The Transport Secretary is working across government to look at how we fine-tune this as we go forward.”
However, he admitted that the UK’s coronavirus rules currently mean that a family here could not go on holiday in Britain, because of the ban on staying overnight, but a family from Spain could, although they would have to self-isolate for 14 days from Monday.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a member of a sub-group of the government advisory group Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), became the latest expert to cast doubt over the effectiveness of a blanket quarantine arrangement for visitors to the UK.
“We would really need to get the level in this country significantly further down before quarantine started to become a useful measure,” he said. “I think even then we would have to see something that is targeted on countries with a significantly higher level of community transmission than ourselves — and there aren’t too many of those around, I’m afraid.”
Greek tourism minister Mr Theoharis said that Britons flying in from most UK airports would be tested on their arrival. If negative, they would have to self-isolate for a week at their villa, apartment or hotel. A positive result could lead to “supervised quarantine” for up to 14 days.