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Britain’s open borders make it a global outlier in coronavirus fight

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Via Financial Times

The UK is setting itself apart from the rest of the world by maintaining loose border controls even as dozens of countries continue to clamp down on international travellers in an attempt to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

As the number of infections worldwide rose above 2m this week, Britain remained in a small club of nations that have failed to match the tighter borders and stringent quarantine rules on arriving travellers that are now common in other countries.

“The UK is an outlier,” said Professor Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine. “It is very hard to understand why it persists in having this open borders policy. It is most peculiar.” 

More than 130 countries have introduced some form of travel restrictions since the coronavirus outbreak began, say Oxford university researchers tracking the measures. These include screening, quarantine and bans on travel from high risk areas.

As a result, at least 90 per cent of the global population lives in countries with restrictions on non-citizens and non-residents arriving from abroad, while 39 per cent live behind borders that are entirely closed to foreigners, according to Pew Research Center analysis published at the start of April.

Since then, authorities in Japan, China, Germany and elsewhere have tightened or extended travel controls, while many require arriving passengers to be tested.

Barcode chart showing earliest date on which countries’ new coronavirus travel restrictions took effect by continent (each bar represents one country)

There is no routine testing at UK airports, where 15,000 passengers are still arriving each day, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told ITV on Thursday. Mr Hancock also said arrivals from places with a serious outbreak were treated differently, but did not explain what process he was referring to. Hundreds of thousands of British nationals have been repatriated since the outbreak began, including 200,000 from Spain, the government says.

Britons travel back to Heathrow airport on a repatriation flight from Florida this month © Victoria Jones/PA

Arrivals are a fraction of what they were before the outbreak but some infectious disease experts think that even small numbers of unchecked arrivals risk undermining efforts to cut infections.

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“The biggest threat comes from cases coming back into the country,” said Paddy Mallon, professor of microbial diseases at University College Dublin in Ireland, which has a broadly similar border policy to the UK. The two countries have long had a common travel area agreement allowing free movement of people.

Prof Mallon said that even when few flights are arriving it makes sense to assess, record and follow up passengers coming from areas with high levels of Covid-19 infection.

British ministers, however, remain outwardly wedded to their existing policy.

In Japan, by contrast, prime minister Shinzo Abe announced on April 1 that existing entry bans would be extended to travellers from 73 countries, including the US, UK and Canada.

Passengers wait for their coronavirus test results on temporary beds made with cardboard boxes after flying into Narita airport on April 8 © Naohiro Katsuta/AP

Those still able to fly to Japan are now tested on arrival and at Narita airport last week some passengers had to sleep in makeshift cardboard beds in the baggage claim area as they awaited their results.

China has barred almost all foreigners and drastically reduced flights in and out of the country. Arriving travellers have to spend a minimum of two weeks in quarantine, usually in hotels designated by the government, where they cannot leave their rooms.

Last week, China closed its land border with Russia after a spike of hundreds of imported cases from Chinese citizens who entered the country’s northeastern Heilongjiang province from Siberia.

Returning overseas travellers walk towards waiting buses at Sydney airport on March 30 after Australia introduced mandatory quarantine in hotels for 14 days © Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

Aggressive quarantine policies have been introduced in Australia, for international and interstate travellers. A man in the state of Western Australia was reportedly jailed for repeatedly sneaking out of the hotel room he was supposed to have been quarantined in for 14 days after flying over from the eastern state of Victoria.

Some US states have also begun to require quarantines for out-of-state visitors and Germany last week brought in quarantine rules for all travellers, including Germans, which require people to stay at home for 14 days and register with the local health authorities for monitoring.

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British citizens are transported to Merseyside to be quarantined after being evacuated from Wuhan, China, at the end of January, before the UK’s strategy changed © Leon Neal/Getty Images

Early in the outbreak, the UK adopted similar measures. From late January, people returning from Covid-19 hotspots such as the Chinese city of Wuhan were quarantined in officially designated accommodation. A programme to identify and manage airport passengers with symptoms was also launched. But the policy changed in mid-March when the government shifted its focus to delaying rather than containing the virus’s spread.

The approach may be turning Britain into a refuge for some travellers. “We’ve seen a very big increase in the number of super yachts coming to the UK to berth because they cannot enter ports in the Mediterranean,” said Anne Carson, owner of Super Yacht Services Falmouth. “I would say there have been 20 or more in the last few weeks alone, which is very high for this time of year.”

Officials in Spain, one of the nations hit hardest by the virus, acknowledge they will need to look at measures such as quarantine and airport testing if and when international travel resumes at a large scale.

When Mr Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, was asked about the risk of unchecked traveller arrivals last week, he said: “We’ve followed the science in terms of international travel all along and we saw right at the start of this pandemic that the two countries that brought in the most draconian international travel restrictions, the US and Italy, both of them have now got serious problems.”

A government spokesperson added on Wednesday there was “no evidence that interventions like closing borders or travel bans would have any effect on the spread of infection” and keeping borders open allowed citizens to return home and kept essential freight moving. 

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“Procedures at the border have been strictly following the latest Public Health England guidance throughout,” this person said. “In line with that advice, no changes have been required at the UK border.”

Some government officials acknowledge privately this could change. 

“If you got into a different place where you were pursuing a policy where you had very low infection rates and were worried that other countries had more lax measures, then restricting border measures would make more sense,” one said. 

Signs at Heathrow airport urge people to stay at home to protect lives © Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

When asked what scientific evidence the government was relying on for its open border policy, Public Health England this week cited a 2014 study that concluded: “Travel restrictions would make an extremely limited contribution to any policy for rapid containment of influenza at source during the first emergence of a pandemic virus.”

More recent research into whether airport temperature screening could help tackle Covid-19 found there was only “limited” evidence it was effective, partly because so many infected people were asymptomatic.

Public Health England told the FT that airport temperature checks had been considered by expert advisers but rejected because “they hold little clinical value”. Symptoms sometimes appeared 14 days after exposure to the virus, PHE said. “Given we know that a raised temperature occurs in the minority of people, less than 50 per cent of confirmed cases would have been detected.”

Yet Prof Scally said it was wrong to reject measures simply because they were not “magic bullet” solutions. “Travel restriction by itself is of course not going to do the job,” he said. “But all of these things are additive. It all adds up to beating the virus.”

By Pilita Clark, Robin Harding, Guy Chazan, Daniel Dombey, Christian Shepherd, Laura Hughes, Aime Williams, David Blood and Bob Haslett

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