Scientists have floated GPS tracking of phones to help secure UK borders amid rising fears over importing Covid variants – as ministers said details of the ‘quarantine hotels’ plan will finally be revealed in the ‘coming days’.
SAGE experts cited the option as a way of increasing compliance with isolation, with fears many are simply ignoring the rules once they get to Britain.
The new quarantine system is not expected to be up and running until February 15, despite being announced three weeks ago, as concerns run high over the threat from mutant strains and whether they could delay lockdown being eased.
Preliminary research has suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine might only reduce severe illness from the South African version, rather than blocking it altogether. South Africa has suspended rollout of the jabs until the situation becomes clearer.
In a round of interviews this morning, health minister Edward Argar offered reassurance about the effectiveness of the vaccine.
He stressed that the ‘dominant strains in the UK currently are not the South African strain’, with ‘only a small number of cases of that’.
He told Sky News: ‘There is no evidence that this vaccine is not effective in preventing hospitalisation, severe illness and death, which is ultimately what we’re seeking with these vaccines.’
But Mr Argar refused to give a firm timetable for when Matt Hancock will announce the details of the ‘hotel quarantines’ plan, which had been promised last week, merely saying it will be ‘in the coming days’.
Britain’s hotel quarantine scheme came under fresh criticism on Sunday when it emerged 35 countries where mutant coronavirus strains have been found are not on the list
In a round of interviews this morning, health minister Edward Argar offered reassurance about the effectiveness of the vaccine
Government sources have repeatedly played down the prospect of using GPS to track whether arrivals in the UK are isolating.
But a paper prepared for SAGE last month warned that that all strategies to block mutant strains are ‘highly dependent’ on people obeying quarantine.
‘Methods of enforcement include fines for violation – with and without electronic monitoring – enying entry to public spaces without electronically validated proof of being virus-free, and mandating self-isolation and quarantining in supervised facilities,’ it added.
‘The acceptability of these different methods varies across countries.’
At a meeting on January 21, SAGE said alongside hotel quarantine ‘digital methods may also be possible’, although it noted they would be ‘challenging’.
Lawrence Young, of Warwick University, told the Times digital monitoring ‘would work’ but questioned if the government would be able to put it in place.
He cautioned that ministers were already acting too late. ‘The variants are already here. It is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted,’ he said.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that 35 countries where mutant coronavirus strains have been found are not on the UK ‘red list’ of travel bans.
Earlier this week, the Government confirmed that all passengers from 33 places will have to quarantine for ten days in a hotel.
But an analysis carried out by the World Health Organisation found dozens of countries where the highly-infectious South African and Brazilian variants have been found are not on the list.
Labour Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds reacted with fury at the news, branding the Government’s quarantine measures ‘dangerously inadequate’.
Scientists also said the oversight was ‘not good enough’, adding that the virus ‘spreads like wildfire’.
Earlier this week, the Government confirmed that all passengers from 33 ‘red list’ countries would have to quarantine for ten days in a hotel from February 15
The WHO analysis, which was reported by the Sunday Times, also found that the Brazilian Covid strain has been found in ten nations, six of which have not been added to the UK red list.
As well as South Africa and Brazil, nations which are also on the list include Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Rwanda and Botswana.
How will the UK’s arrivals testing scheme work?
How many tests do people need to get?
1 – Passengers get their first mandatory test within 72-hours of their departing flight.
(When they arrive – from a country that isn’t on the list of 33 ‘red’ countries that will quarantine in a hotel – they must isolate for 10 days)
2 – On day two of self-isolation, a Covid PCR test will be administered. The tests will be posted to the traveller, it is understood.
3 – An optional test can be taken on the fifth day of at-home isolation. If it comes back negative, the traveller will no-longer have to self isolate.
4 – Another mandatory test will be carried out on day eight.
How are the mandatory tests enforced?
Fines will be issued for those who don’t get tested, The Times reports.
But it is not clear how the mandatory testing will be enforced – i.e. how officials will know if the tests have been taken or not.
It is also not clear how much the fines will be.
Will they be lateral flow or PCR tests?
The tests on day two and day eight will likely be PCR tests – which are more reliable than the quicker lateral flow ones.
The tests passengers flying into the UK must take can be lateral flow tests or PCR tests.
It is unclear what tests passengers can take on their optional day five test.
Who will pay for the tests?
The traveller will have to pay for the tests.
But of the 41 countries which the WHO’s report said the South African strain had spread to, 29 of them do not feature on Britain’s red list.
Overall, it means arrivals from 35 counties were more infectious strains which could beat or limit the effect of the available coronavirus vaccines will be free to avoid the hotel scheme when they land in Britain.
Instead, they will be trusted to quarantine at home for ten days.
Dr Julian Tang, a virologist at Leicester University, told The Sunday Times: ‘It’s not good enough.
‘This virus spreads like wildfire. If you let some people in but not others, from a virology point of view, it’s fairly futile.’
Mr Thomas-Symonds said: ‘These revelations expose the fact that – as Labour warned – the UK Government’s quarantine measures will continue to leave us completely exposed to emerging strains of the virus.
‘Not only are the measures far too slow to begin – 50 days after the South African strain emerged – they are also dangerously inadequate. Tory incompetence is dangerous.’
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband earlier told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: ‘At the moment the government is proposing a quarantine system that covers just five per cent of arrivals that happen each day in the UK.
‘That is not an effective quarantine system.’
The news came after it emerged on Friday night that passengers arriving in Britain from countries not on the Covid hotspot list could have to take up to four tests during their at-home isolation period.
All the tests must be paid for by the traveller. Those who fail to take the mandatory tests face fines, reports claim.
It is unclear how much the tests will cost, but private patients can fork out around £150 on one currently.
This means it could cost up to £600 for all four tests.
The travellers’ first test will be taken up to 72 hours before flying – as is the rule currently.
Once home, arrivals must begin their ten-day self isolation.
On their second day in quarantine, travellers need to get a second compulsory Covid test.
It will likely be a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test which will be posted to Britons to carry out themselves, sources claim.
They could also be given the details of their nearest Covid testing centre after filling in a passenger locator form.
Arrivals will then have the option of a third Covid test they can take on the fifth day of at-home isolation.
This is optional and will allow the traveller to leave quarantine early should it come back negative.