Revealed: Foreign travel Covid risk concerns raised by Scots experts last summer

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PREMIUM

SCOTS experts warned six months ago that international travel was a main driver of Covid-19 infections but the UK’s rigorous test-before-travel scheme was not introduced until yesterday, allowing the virus to circulate freely in Scotland, it has emerged.

New rules requiring arrivals to take a negative coronavirus test up to 72 hours before departure and self-isolate for up to 10 days after entering the UK came into effect at 4am yesterday as travel corridors offering exemptions were scrapped.

The move is part of the Government’s attempts to prevent new strains of Covid-19 entering the UK.

Passengers arriving in the UK yesterday faced long queues of up to two hours at the border as new coronavirus travel rules came into force. Self-scan gates were shut as officals checked all passengers for proof of a negative Covid-19 test result.

The UK Government last week introduced for the first time measures aimed at ensuring that people coming into the country now required a negative Covid-19 test.

Before that, according to figures shared with the more than 14,000 passengers a week were estimated to have been arriving in Scotland through the nation’s airports from home and abroad without that clearance – 6000 more than in mid-April, in the early stages of the first lockdown.

It has emerged that a June study from over 40 Scottish health experts from seven universities examining the four weeks after the first case reported was reported in Scotland on March 1 concluded an earlier lockdown from countries with a high burden of cases such as Italy and other measures such as quarantine of travellers from high-risk areas “might have prevented escalation of the outbreak and multiple clusters of ongoing community transmission”.

The research carried out by analysts from the likes of the University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh found that the outbreak “is the result of multiple separate introductions of the virus associated with international travel”.

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“A lack of robust measures to manage ingress of infected travellers from emerging pandemic hotspots may have accelerated the course of the outbreak in Scotland and the UK as a whole,” the study stated.

And in early December, a month before the introduction of tougher travel restrictions, a Scottish expert report from many of the same institutions submitted to the Government advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) painted a similar picture this time with the second wave.

A Jet 2 passenger plane arrives at Birmingham Airport.

The Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium in its analysis of the findings said: “What was then observed going into the second wave is that disease was caused by new lineages that has been introduced into the country, many of which could be traced to introductions from countries outside of the UK.

“Summer holidays and other travel abroad taken at a time when disease was under control in Scotland, but less so elsewhere, has had a predictable outcome.

“This provides indisputable evidence for the importance of border controls, including effective screening and isolation policies. Once introduced, spread is driven by travel, and then onward spread by population density.”

It will be for the travel operator to do the negative Covid-19 checks before boarding. The UK Government’s Border force will then carry out random spot checks on arrivals to make sure people are complying, according to the Scottish Government.

Italy, the first Western country to be hit by the virus and became the fifth nation in the world to surpass 70,000 deaths, at the end of December, brought in their negative test rule for those arriving from the EU or Schengen Zone a month earlier and had the restriction in place for UK travellers in early October.

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The Greek government announced on November 9, that all foreigners seeking to enter the country must first present a negative coronavirus test, not older than 72 hours, amid the second wave of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Edinburgh Airport said it had been calling for more stringent measures over travel for nine months, including the negative Covid test requirement.

“We could have worked with both governments on a process which is acceptable to both rather than having this imposed on us with no consultation, no guidance and little warning,” said a spokesman.

“We are still waiting to understand much of the detail, including what tests are acceptable for example.

“It’s imperative that governments now work with the industry to improve the process and work constructively with us to set an international standard which is recognised by all and removes the need for quarantine through rigorous testing by all countries.”

In October, the respect Common Weal think tank called for increased regulation including border checks as it emerged that the nation was only testing at up to a third of its ability as it hits a second wave of the virus.

Dr Craig Dalzell, its head of policy and research said: “Common Weal has been calling for increased regulations at borders – particularly a policy of managed quarantine for all incoming travellers – for almost six months. The Scottish Government previously dismissed this policy by pointing to breaches from quarantine facilities in places like Australia, New Zealand or South Korea but it remains the case that those countries have their pandemic far more under control than we do.

“The Scottish Government should bring back their apparently abandoned Covid Elimination strategy by further ramping up Test, Trace and Isolate and by ensuring that incoming travellers are subject to strict quarantine enforced by compliance checks and/or quarantine in government controlled hotels or other facilities as has been practiced by the abovementioned countries.

“The alternative will be another series of lockdowns and reopenings over the course of the next year or more and many more avoidable deaths and long-term illnesses right at the point where people should be looking forward to being vaccinated.”

As the test-before-travel scheme took effect, some passengers were turned away from at least one transatlantic flight because the airline did not regard their negative Covid tests as sufficiently high standard.

The American Airlines (AA) flight from Philadelphia via Chicago’s O’Hare airport to London Heathrow was the first departure for which passengers were required to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before being allowed onboard.

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Hannah Holland, a 23-year-old British woman from Sheffield, was one of those who was stopped because she had insufficient proof through an antigen Covid test and others were also denied.

Even with the new UK testing requirements, most travellers – including British nationals – since July 10 must still self-isolate for 10 days on arrival from abroad.

Some who managed to fly in without the necessary paperwork were given £500 on-the-spot fines.

All travellers arriving in the UK must provide contact details and their UK address through a passenger locator form. All arrivals are e-mailed and a proportion have a follow-up phone call or text.

Official figures shared with the shows that 55,393 people came into Scotland between December 12 and January 12 and and 43,494 were required by law to quarantine, before the Covid test requirement was brought in.

As little as one in five of those arriving in Scotland on a weekly basis who have to quarantine by law, are checked up on to ensure compliance by Scotland’s National Contact Tracing Centre (NCTC).

Over the latest three week period, to January 10, of the 29,517 people who arrived in Scotland who have to quarantine, 7,244 were checked on by the NCTC. And in the last full week, to January 10, just 1,998 of of 10,483 people were checked.

The June expert analysis said that travel to continental Europe in February and March 2020, the epicentre of the global COVID-19 pandemic, “was a clear driver of the Scottish outbreak”.

It indicated that SARS-CoV-2 entered the Scottish population through at least 113 separate travel-related introductions, leading to at least 48 clusters of sustained community transmission.

It said: “Despite evidence of local transmission in Italy as early as February 21, advice from the Scottish Government for returning travellers from Italy to self-isolate was issued only on February 25 and was limited to those having returned from specific lockdown areas.

“By the time this advice was extended to all travellers on March 10, the Covid-19 outbreak within Scotland was already being driven by community transmission. ”

The Scottish Government says it has been open about its concerns over the importation of the virus from outside the UK as well as from other parts of the UK – and has been working to stop travellers from avoiding the quarantine rules.

“We have worked on a four nations basis, to seek to avoid the ability of travellers to avoid quarantine by choosing to travel from one of the four nations other than the one in which a traveller lives,” spokesman said.

Unlike other countries, temperature screening is not carried out at Scottish airports, with ministers saying it is “not a reliable means on its own of identifying positive cases of Covid-19”.

Some airports have pushed for thermal scanners which could help them identify passengers who may have the coronavirus by detecting people with an elevated temperature as they walk through the airport.

In mid-April, the revealed that thousands of visitors a week were arriving in Scotland from home and abroad without health checks while the nation continues to be in lockdown and undergo social distancing in the coronavirus pandemic.

Even then, South Korea, which was among the first countries to bring the outbreak under control, was using widespread testing and technology-enabled tracking to allow people to travel to the country. Mandatory testing and quarantines applied to nearly all arrivals from overseas, including citizens.

South Korea’s Incheon International Airport then had 16 open-air testing booths at five locations spread around the airport’s two terminals. They are capable of testing up to 2,000 people a day for Covid 19 — at a pace of testing one person every five minutes.

All arrivals also had to download a government app that tracks their location and requires users to report any symptoms. Then everyone, regardless of nationality or whether they tested negative, must self-isolate for two weeks.

The Scottish Government says that if the NCTC is unable to make contact via three phone calls or an email then Public Health Scotland is obliged to share details with Police Scotland. “Police Scotland continue to follow-up to engage, explain, encourage, and enforce the law, where necessary,” a spokesman said.

“For the sample who are called they are sent an SMS or emails first and then called. If they do not answer a further SMS is sent informing them giving them advise and asking them to call the contact tracing centre. The detail of the small number who do not respond are forwarded to the police as above.”

The Home Office were asked a series of questions about the effectiveness of travel restrictions and quarantine checks but did not directly answer.

Instead the government department produced a statement saying: “We are determined to reduce the spread of coronavirus and have implemented stringent measures to prevent the virus from being readmitted into the country. It is important that everyone complies with these rules.

“These measures include compulsory Passenger Locator Forms and spot checks both at the border and during quarantine periods. Border Force have conducted more than 3 million spot checks and PHE are contacting a further 1,500 people each day.

“We are also bringing in measures to test everyone coming into the country. Border Force officers will carry out checks upon arrival and will be able to issue £500 fines to those who fail to comply.”

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