UK frightening would-be travellers into staying put with ‘over the top’ jail threat

Health Secretary Matt Hancock vows to crack down on people who ‘fly to Dubai for the weekend’

09/02/2021. London, United Kingdom. Health Secretary Matt Hancock before Parliament announcement. Department of Health. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street
Powered by automated translation

The tourism industry accused the UK government of trying to scare people into not going abroad after ministers announced a potential 10-year prison sentence for travellers who lie about where they have been.

The new measure will be brought in next Monday to coincide with the start date of the hotel quarantine system as ministers seek to buttress Britain’s security controls to keep out new variants of the virus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged critics to get behind the plan and said the UK risked being "cut off from the rest of the world" if border measures were tightened further.

Mr Johnson was speaking hours after EU chief Ursula von der Leyen admitted mistakes in the delivery of vaccines across Europe.

To keep more vaccine supplies in Europe, the EU threatened to introduce temporary export restrictions between the bloc and Northern Ireland by invoking an emergency Brexit clause, a move that provoked anger in London, Dublin and Belfast.

“Mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision and I deeply regret that,” she said.

To protect the UK's inoculation campaign from mutant strains, a maximum fine of £10,000 ($13,850) will be imposed on travellers from so-called red list countries – destinations deemed to be high-risk – who refuse to quarantine in a government-approved hotel.

Passengers who lie to authorities about where they have been risk a jail term of up to 10 years, longer than for some offences involving child abuse.

The UAE, South Africa, Portugal and all South American nations are among the 33 countries from which journeys to the UK are banned.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the public expected “pretty strong action” against people who deliberately lied about travelling to a high-risk country but he did not think the penalty would ever be used.

“I don’t expect that people are going to break the law in this way, and I don’t suspect it will need to be used, but the fines and the law will be there if required," he told LBC radio.

"People are unlikely, I think, given the size of tariff and the fines involved, to do this.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he made “no apologies for the strength of these measures” as authorities dealt with the “strongest threats to our health that we’ve faced as a nation”.

“The virus doesn’t treat people differently just because they are better off and might be able to fly to Dubai for the weekend,” he said.

Travel industry bodies said the government was trying to scare people, with one calling the threat “over the top”.

“A 10-year prison sentence seems wildly OTT. People who kill and badly maim others don’t get that long in prison. They are trying to frighten people, in our view; they should have been stricter early on,” the Association of Independent Tour Operators said.

“We’re now 14 months into this pandemic and the constant changing of rules, when many people can’t even keep track of which day of the week it is, causes mayhem.”

Several senior Conservative backbenchers objected to the policy. Former attorney general Dominic Grieve said the 10-year sentence was draconian and a mistake.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru vaccination centre at Batchwood Hall, amid the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in St Albans, Britain, February 5, 2021. REUTERS/Paul Childs
The government's aim is to protect the inoculation campaign from new variants of coronavirus. Reuters 

"It is utterly disproportionate and the government should not be abusing the powers it has taken through parliament for this emergency," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "The House of Commons should pay attention to what the government is doing over this. You should not have disproportionate penalties of this kind."

Sir Geoffrey Cox, who was Mr Johnson's first attorney general, said: "I get that the secretary of state wants to show that this is serious but you do have to have regard to the overall balance of sentencing policy and law."

Other MPs raised doubts over whether the policy would ever take effect and called for a vote on the issue.

“We are suppressing this virus at all costs and I really would implore ministers to take stock. At some point we are going to have to see reason and let temperance reassert itself,” said Tory MP Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group.

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, accused Mr Johnson of being too slow to act on preventing new variants from entering the country.

Mr Johnson, however, said the government reduced the number of people arriving in the UK to about 8 per cent of the normal levels.

“People should understand that on a normal day at this time of year you could expect about 250,000 to be arriving in this country. We’ve got it down to about 20,000 – 5,000 of them who are involved in bringing in vital things into this country, such as medicines and food," he said.

“Unless he actually wants to cut this country off from the rest of the world – which I think last week he said he didn’t want to do, unless of course he’s changed his mind again – I think this policy is measured, proportionate, it’s getting tougher from Monday and I hope he supports it.”

Mr Shapps estimated that fewer than 1,000 people a day were arriving in the UK from the list of 33 banned countries, with more than 5,000 rooms “immediately available” for the hotel quarantine system.

“Next week, when people will have to pay £1,750 to stay in a hotel, we’ll find the numbers are pretty small. But we can increase hotel numbers very, very quickly, because we have those arrangements in place,” he said.

The plan comes as an Institute for Government report warned that the hotel quarantine system “is likely to prove a costly failure” if its aim was to prevent new variants entering the country.

The report concluded that “such a system will not, and cannot, eliminate the possibility of new variants spreading”.

What are the new rules for travellers? 

All passengers are required to show a negative Covid-19 test taken 72 hours before departure on entry to the UK.

The government announced on Tuesday that two further tests should be taken during the 10-day quarantine period – on day two and day eight - regardless of whether isolating at home or in an approved hotel.

Those who fail to take a test face a £1,000 fine, followed by a £2,000 penalty and an extension to their quarantine period, to 14 days, if they miss the second test.

From Monday, travellers arriving from red list countries will be taken to an approved hotel where they will quarantine for 10 days under supervision.

Single adults will be charged £1,750 for a 10-day stay in a quarantine hotel, which covers the hotel, transfer and testing.

The hotel stay can be arranged on a new booking website that will be set up later in the week.

Passengers arriving in England face fines of up to £10,000 for failing to quarantine, and those who lie on their passenger locator forms face up to 10 years in jail.