Coronavirus spread faster in the UK as the Government failed to bring in quarantine rules for travellers in the early days of the pandemic, according to MPs.
The “critical errors” – including the “inexplicable” decision to lift all border restrictions in March – “accelerated” the scale and pace of the pandemic in the country and led to “many more people contracting Covid-19”, a Commons Home Affairs Committee report said.
The group of MPs backed the decision to include Spain in the current quarantine measures – although it hit out at the way travel corridor decisions were being made and called for improvements.
The inquiry considered all of the Government’s decisions on border measures during the crisis so far, from the early quarantine of 273 people largely from Wuhan, through voluntary self-isolation applying to travellers from specific countries (including China, Iran and Italy) in February and early March; the lifting of all border measures on March 13; the introduction of mandatory quarantine in June; the introduction of travel corridors; and the most recent decision to reintroduce quarantine for Spain.
Drawing on evidence that “thousands of people with Covid-19 arrived in or returned to the UK in February and March”, the committee concluded: “The UK’s experience of Covid-19 has been far worse as a result of the Government’s decision not to require quarantine during March, which would have reduced the number of imported infections.”
Some 10,000 people with Covid-19 may have entered or returned to the country in March, the committee said.
It also cited a study referred to by the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance which indicated more than 1,300 separate strains of the virus were imported largely from Spain, Italy and France during that period.
Committee chairwoman Yvette Cooper said: “The Government’s failure to have proper quarantine measures in place in March as the infection was spreading fast was a grave error and meant Covid spread faster and reached more people.
“The UK was almost unique in having no border checks or quarantine arrangements at that time. That alone should have rung loud alarm bells for ministers and made them think again.
“Many times ministers told us they were following the science, but we cannot find any science at all behind their completely inexplicable decision to lift all the self-isolation guidance for travellers on March 13, a full 10 days before lockdown, just at a time when other countries were introducing stronger border measures.
“We were told that thousands more people with Covid-19 came back to the UK after that guidance was lifted. So in the middle of March, at a time when the number of people with Covid coming back into the UK was at its peak, they were going back to work or onto public transport or seeing family without any quarantine in place.”
The Government’s failure to provide the scientific advice behind its decisions – despite repeated requests and promises to do so – was “completely unacceptable”, the committee said, as it warned ministers may have been making decisions without sight of “critical information”.
The lack of clarity is “very serious and may well have contributed to mistakes being made”, the MPs said.
Ms Cooper added: “It has been extremely difficult to work out who took key decisions and on what basis.”
Last-minute decisions and mixed messages were also “very unhelpful” for holidaymakers, and the Government needs to be “much more sensitive” to the impact this has on families and businesses.
The committee also remained “unconvinced” by Home Office claims that an estimated 99.9% of the public subjected to quarantine restrictions were complying with the rules and called for the findings to be “better evidenced” and routinely published.
Among a string of recommendations made, the committee said the Government should investigate the viability of carrying out testing at the border and publish a traffic light system to show prevalence rates for different countries for travellers to consider.
A Government spokeswoman said the committee was “incorrect” in its “assertions”, adding: “All of our decisions throughout the pandemic have been guided by the science, with appropriate measures introduced at the right time to keep us all safe.”