GRANT Shapps has defended plans for prison sentences of up to 10 years for returning travellers who try to evade the UK Government’s strengthened coronavirus quarantine rules.
Ministers have faced accusations that the penalties for UK nationals returning from high-risk destinations to airports like London Heathrow and Gatwick who lie about their movements are “disproportionate”.
However, the UK Government’s Transport Secretary insisted “strong action” was needed to prevent new mutations of the virus entering the country, potentially undermining UKwide vaccination programmes, and that the public would expect “very stiff penalties” for transgressors.
Yesterday, his Cabinet colleague Matt Hancock announced people returning to England from 33 so-called “red-list” destinations would have to pay £1,750 to quarantine for 10 days in Government-designated hotels.
Those caught lying about their movements could be fined £10,000 or jailed for 10 years.
The Scottish Government has gone further by adopting a programme of a managed 10-day quarantine for all visitors coming to Scotland directly. However, this number, overall, represents just a fraction of all people travelling to Scotland from abroad as most fly in to airports south of the border like Heathrow.
As reported by The today passengers on just 19 of the 247 flights landing at Scotland’s major airports next week will be subject to hotel quarantine. Most flights will come via England or the Common Travel Area[CTA] of Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.
All domestic and CTA travellers are exempt from quarantine while all international arrivals into the UK from non-red-list countries – including those who travel onto Scotland – are required to self-isolate at home for 10 days.
Yet checks on home self-isolation are limited compared to hotel quarantine, where passengers must remain in their rooms 24/7 with security guards patrolling the corridors.
Under the UK Government’s policy, hotel quarantine will be limited to 33 countries where potential exposure to South African and Brazilian variants is considered to be higher; mainly in South America and parts of Africa but also Portugal and Dubai.
However, the list does not include other countries where the variants have been detected such as France, Belgium or Canada.
The UK Government’s proposal to jail those who intentionally seek to conceal the start of their journey from one of the “red-list” countries has sparked controversy this morning.
Lord Sumption, the former UK Supreme Court justice, said the penalties were more severe than those for some violent or sexual offences.
“Does Mr Hancock really think that non-disclosure of a visit to Portugal is worse than the large number of violent firearms offences or sexual offences involving minors, for which the maximum is seven years?” he asked.
Dominic Grieve, the former Conservative Attorney General, insisted 10-year jail terms were a “mistake” and would never actually be used by the courts.
“This is a regulatory offence, and no regulatory offence I can think of attracts a 10-year sentence,” declared the former Government law officer.
“The reality is that nobody would get such a sentence anyway, the courts are simply not going to impose it. It’s a mistake of the Government to suggest something which is not going to happen,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
However, Mr Shapps argued the public would expect strong action if lives were being put at risk by people bringing dangerous new variants into the country.
“I do think it is serious if people put others in danger by deliberately misleading and saying that you weren’t in Brazil or South Africa, or one of the red list countries,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“The British public would expect pretty strong action because we’re not talking now just about: ‘Oh, there’s a lot of coronavirus in that country and you might bring some more of it back when we already have plenty of it here.’
“What we’re talking about now are the mutations, the variants, and that is a different matter, because we don’t want to be in a situation where we later on discover that there’s a problem with vaccines.”
In the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Hancock indicated the UK Government’s quarantine measures could be in place until the autumn if vaccine booster jabs were needed in response to coronavirus variants.
He told MPs that 16 hotels had been contracted to provide 4,600 rooms for the quarantine programme, which begins on Monday.
Travel trade organisation Abta warned that requiring passengers to pay for multiple tests once leisure travel restarted would have “serious cost implications” and “hurt demand”.
A spokeswoman urged ministers to “develop a roadmap to reopen travel”.
Meanwhile, the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group added a new strain detected in Bristol to its “variant of concern” list. A strain identified in Liverpool has also been classed as a “variant under investigation”.
Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said the relatively slow rise in cases of the South African and Bristol variant was “reassuring”.
But she warned that controlling them would become much more challenging as lockdown was relaxed.
Health officials said they had so far found 76 cases of the Bristol and Liverpool variants in the UK.
Both those variants contain the E484K mutation, a genetic change also found in both the South African and Brazilian variants, which experts suggest may be better at evading the human immune response.
Extra coronavirus testing is also being carried out in the borough of Lambeth in south London after a case of the South African variant was discovered there.