Sense and screenability: an analysis of the UK’s quarantine plan

Samar Shams
5 June 2020

In this article, Immigration and Global Mobility Partner Samar Shams summarises the UK’s quarantine plan. She considers the reasoning behind the plan and whether a screening programme might eventually replace the quarantine measures.

What is the plan?

From 8 June, new arrivals to the UK are required to complete a form to provide their contact details and details of their journey before travelling. Upon arrival, they are required to self-isolate for 14 days. The requirements apply to both UK residents and visitors, unless they fit within one of 44 listed exemptions.

Arrivals can self-isolate in their own home, with friends or family, or in a hotel. In England, those self-isolating are not allowed to go out, other than for urgent medical assistance, for food or medicine only when these cannot be delivered, or in certain other specified circumstances. Failure to comply with the quarantine requirements could result in a £1000 fine. However, the system seems fairly ‘light-touch’. Exempted individuals may only need to show Border Force personnel a letter from their employer on their smartphone to avoid quarantine.

Sense check?

The Government’s position is that there is a risk that cases from abroad will trigger a second peak in the UK. Boris Johnson set this out in a press conference on 3 June.

The advice from SAGE, as repeated by Government Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance during the same press conference is that quarantine measures are most effective when the number of cases in the arrival country are very low and when the quarantine measures are applied to countries with higher rates.

The UK’s quarantine plan does not refer to the scientific advice in terms of how the quarantine is applied. Exemptions are based mostly on one’s role or normal commuting pattern. None of the 44 exemptions from quarantine requirements are based on the rate of infection in the country from which the traveller is coming.

Throughout the press conference, the Prime Minister and scientific advisors failed to provide a sensible justification for the quarantine. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty gave what he himself described as a very long answer when questioned about the quarantine. His answer set out all the measures required to combat the virus but did not address the quarantine plan.

The quarantine will delay the UK’s economic recovery. UK workers who have spent lockdown abroad are impeded from resuming their roles. New hires from overseas, many of whom are coming to fill roles in shortage in the UK, are similarly delayed in taking up their work in the UK. Tourists are put off and sectors related to travel will suffer adverse effects.

Employers sponsoring skilled workers from overseas might need to adjust start dates and report the changes to the Home Office, to accommodate the quarantine requirements.

What might happen in future?

The quarantine plan is due to be reviewed at the end of June. Alternative measures might subsequently replace the quarantine system, e.g. a programme to screen prospective travellers. Such a system has been in place in relation to TB testing for several years, with applicants attending Home Office-approved testing centres to obtain health certificates for submission with their visa applications, before travelling to the UK.

Such a system would be much less disruptive to business and social activity. Boris Johnson argued against a screening programme on the basis that it would be undermined by false negatives. However, the risk of false negatives could be mitigated, for example by testing prospective travellers twice before issuing a health certificate.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister Boris says to workers stuck outside the UK, “Come back! . . . but you’ve gotta quarantine.”