LONDON — Britain, besieged by a more contagious coronavirus strain and alarmed by the potential of new and imported variants, is about to launch the toughest travel restrictions in Europe, including mandatory hotel quarantines and 1o-year prison terms for those who lie on entry forms.
The government has already shut down almost all travel by international visitors from 33 countries seen as viral hotspots, including Brazil and South Africa.
Beginning Monday, British citizens returning from those “red list” countries must quarantine for 10 days in designated hotels, under police guard, costing travelers £1,750 or about $2,400. Travelers must submit to multiple coronavirus tests before release. Those who try to elude quarantine face $14,000 fines.
The threat of prison time is for anyone found guilty of misleading authorities over having recently been in a red list country.
Only essential travel is allowed from countries not on the list, including the United States. And all international arrivals must show proof of a recent negative coronavirus test and self-quarantine for 10 days, getting tested on days 2 and 8, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on Tuesday evening.
The raft of measures marks a profound escalation in Britain’s pandemic response, showing how worried the government and its scientific advisers are about the dizzying rise of various coronavirus “variants of concern,” some of which have evolved to be much more infectious, possibly more deadly or potentially less responsive to vaccines.
Already, Britain on many days posts the highest per capita death toll from the virus in the world.
Forcing arrivals into government-run quarantine sites near airports has been policy in Australia, China and South Korea. But it is new for Europe. And it is especially out-of-character for this Conservative Party British government.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been criticized for being too slow in declaring each of three national lockdowns. His government reopened pubs before fully reopening schools and paid people to go out and eat in restaurants last summer.
Throughout the pandemic, Johnson and his Tory backbenchers have been resistant to sweeping travel bans, seeing Britain, and London especially, as a vital crossroads of global travel, trade and finance.
That the “sovereign free-trading island nation,” as Johnson like to describe his country, is essentially retreating into its castle keep, pulling up the drawbridges, appears especially hard for Johnson, as the measures come just as the prime minister hoped to launch his vision for a post-Brexit “Global Britain.”
The red flags denote countries with exploding outbreaks or those that have produced concerning mutations of the virus. Fourteen are in Central and South America, alongside a dozen African nations. Portugal is the only country in Europe to make the list.
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said the Johnson government tends to view coronavirus restrictions as “something that will harm the economy, rather than seeing the case for how restrictions early on would actually be better for the economy in the long-term.”
Bale said he imagined the government’s threat of prison for travelers caught lying was designed to be “eye-catching” and show that “to breach regulations would be a serious thing to do.”
But he said it could also be “an attempt by the government to get everyone talking about that, rather than failures going back to March to protect the borders.”
The government has been lax in law enforcement of previous coronavirus travel restrictions, with border force police issuing few fines, leaving it to public health tracers to follow up with travelers to see if they are abiding by quarantine rules.
The newly announced, more actively enforced quarantines have stirred deep feelings of lost liberties.
Jonathan Sumption, a former supreme court judge and medieval historian, asked the health minister in a guest column in the Telegraph, “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?”
Sumption continued, “The hotel quarantine rules are a form of imprisonment in solitary confinement. They are brutal, inhumane and disproportionate. They are economically extremely destructive. They are also of limited value because the virus is already endemic in the UK and spontaneously mutates all the time.”
Lindsey Scott, 36, a supervisor on an offshore oil rig in the Black Sea, off the Turkish coast, told The Washington Post he was reevaluating a planned visit home to see his family in Scotland.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people worse off than me right now,” he said. “Just seems a bit extreme. Would be happy to isolate at home and get the two tests so I could at least be with my family.”
Linda Bauld, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said that once Britain’s new measures come into effect on Monday, it will have some of the strictest border controls in Europe. She noted that Norway and Iceland also have some managed quarantine.
She said that in addition to risks from new variants, there’s a recognition from some research that Britain “should have had a quarantine system in place some time ago” and that international travel contributed to the second wave of the pandemic here.
In Scotland, Bauld said, “we got infection levels down to 2-3 cases a day in July, and then people were allowed to go off on holiday. And the genomic sequencing shows that lineages of the virus were reseeding into the country by people coming back from elsewhere.”
Johnson’s government and the National Health Service have been running one of the most efficient vaccine campaigns in the world, and they’ve held out hope that if everyone lines up and gets their jabs, restrictions could be lifted in the spring – and summer might feel more normal.
But on Wednesday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps warned on BBC radio: “Please don’t go ahead and book holidays for something which, at this stage, is illegal to actually go and do, whether it’s here or abroad.”
Earlier this week, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, said, “The more elaborate your plans are for summer holidays – in terms of crossing borders, in terms of household mixing – given where we are now, I think we just have to say, the more you are stepping into making guesses about the unknown at this point.”