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UK government under fire after ‘big influx’ of Covid

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The Home Office is facing further questions about the lack of interventions at the border before the coronavirus lockdown after the government’s chief scientific adviser revealed the UK received a “big influx of cases” from Europe that “seeded right the way across the country”.

Sir Patrick Vallance was giving evidence to the health and social care committee after figures revealed that just 273 out of the 18.1 million people who entered the UK in the three months prior to the coronavirus lockdown were formally quarantined.

Vallance said that studying the genomics of the virus had allowed them to determine the origin of cases brought into the UK.

Arrivals into the UK have plummeted by as much as 99% on some routes but the country has been described as an “outlier” in its approach to border controls during the crisis. The only measures being taken at the border are the use of posters, digital displays and leaflets with information about the measures in place.

The Home Office has insisted that the scientific advice showed that placing restrictions at the border would not have had a significant impact on the spread of the virus in the UK.

But Vallance said many of the cases came from the “high level of travel into the UK”.

“One of the things that it looks like very clear is that early in March the UK got many, many different imports of virus from many different places,” he said. Those places were particularly from European countries with outbreaks.

“So we see a big influx of cases probably from Italy and Spain looking at the genomics of the virus in early March, seeded right the way across the country. Whether that was people returning from half-term, business travellers or not, we don’t know.

“But a lot of the cases in the UK didn’t come from China and didn’t come from the place you might have expected, they came from European imports and the high level of travel into the UK at that time.”

Passengers on three flights from Wuhan, in China, the source of the Covid-19 outbreak, and one flight from Tokyo, Japan, that was carrying passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, were taken to government-supported isolation facilities between 1 January to 22 March.

The figures, provided by the government to the Labour MP and member of the home affairs select committee Stephen Doughty, show this totalled 273 people.

Additional data provided to the committee shows that there were 18.1 million arrivals at the UK border by air, land and sea in the same period.

Although that includes arrivals from all destinations, it is understood that Home Office estimates would still put the number of potentially infected individuals entering the UK from coronavirus-affected countries in that period in the tens of thousands.

Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014/15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

Most people who get Covid-19 will be infected by their friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, so they will be first on the list. It is not likely anyone will get infected by someone they do not know, passing on the street.

It is still assumed there has to be reasonable exposure – originally experts said people would need to be together for 15 minutes, less than 2 metres apart. So a contact tracer will want to know who the person testing positive met and talked to over the two or three days before they developed symptoms and went into isolation.

South Korea has large teams of contact tracers and notably chased down all the contacts of a religious group, many of whose members fell ill. That outbreak was efficiently stamped out by contact tracing and quarantine.

Singapore and Hong Kong have also espoused testing and contact tracing and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the “backbone of the response” in every country.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

Doughty said: “The admission that just four flights from two locations, barely a few hundred individuals – out of literally millions of arrivals – were formally quarantined while the pandemic was already raging in a series of locations beggars belief.

“On what scientific basis were a handful of flights from Wuhan and one from a Tokyo singled out for extreme attention? But not a single flight from Northern Italy, Spain or the US?

“The fact that many of these people then likely arrived and travelled onwards across the UK with little or no adherence to social distancing, and with no checks or protections at the border – barely a whiff of hand sanitiser – is deeply disturbing. Let alone the arrival of 3,000 fans from Madrid [for a football match against Liverpool] as the pandemic picked up speed.

“Yet arrivals continue to this day – with no formal quarantine requirements. It is simply staggering. Who made these decisions? And on what basis?”

On 31 January, 83 passengers arrived in the UK on an evacuation flight arranged by the Foreign Office from Wuhan and were taken to a facility in Merseyside. On 2 February, a further 11 passengers arrived in the UK on a French-organised flight evacuation from Wuhan and were taken to the same site.

On 9 February, 147 passengers arrived in the UK on a final evacuation flight from Wuhan and were taken to an isolation facility in Milton Keynes. And on 22 February, 32 passengers arrived in the UK on an evacuation flight from Tokyo and were taken to the site in Merseyside.

The government continues to allow arrivals into the UK without screening or enforced quarantine, which the home secretary, Priti Patel, said was based on advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

Patel told the committee that air passenger numbers were down 99% year on year, while maritime passengers were down 88.7% and international rail travellers were down 94%.

Total arrivals have plunged to below 10,000 a day, compared with totals as high as 300,000 in the months before the crisis struck Europe.

Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said: “It was incredible that the home secretary couldn’t answer clear questions from the select committee regarding controls on flights from areas suffering from extensive coronavirus outbreaks. It appears crucial opportunities were missed, meaning significant numbers of people may have been entering the country with coronavirus.

“This leaves urgent unanswered questions for the home secretary. Further information needs to be made public on how the decisions were made and on what scientific basis – it is vital past mistakes are learned from to help shape policy as we move to the next stages of managing this crisis.”

A government spokesperson said: “Our approach to tackling coronavirus is, and has always been, driven by the latest scientific and medical advice, and procedures at the border have been strictly following the latest government guidance throughout.

“The scientific advice showed that placing restrictions at the border would not have had a significant impact on the spread of the virus in the UK. Passenger numbers arriving in the UK are currently down by 99% but we continue to keep this under review.”

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