How strict are the UK's border controls compared with everyone else's?

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·5 min read
Does the UK really have one of the 'toughest' set of coronavirus border restrictions in the world? (Stefan Rousseau/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Does the UK really have one of the 'toughest' set of coronavirus border restrictions in the world, as Boris Johnson has said? (AFP via Getty Images)

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“We have one of the toughest border regimes anywhere in the world,” Boris Johnson said at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday.

It’s a claim he has made time and time again in recent weeks as his coronavirus border policy has come under repeated fire.

But does the UK really have one of the “toughest” set of border restrictions in the world?

A quick glance at Oxford University’s respected Our World in Data website shows there are at least 31 countries deemed to have the toughest possible “total border closures”. The UK is not one of them.

Instead, Britain, like dozens of other countries in the world, is described as having the second toughest “ban on high-risk regions”.

The following two graphics separate the countries with “total border closures” (dark red) and those like the UK with “bans on high-risk regions” (light red).

(Our World in Data)
(Our World in Data)
(Our World in Data)
(Our World in Data)

So what are the UK’s border measures?

Anyone travelling to one of the four UK nations from abroad must provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test result up to 72 hours before departure.

Travellers must also provide journey and contact details before arrival, while everyone must self-isolate for 10 days upon arrival.

As of Monday in England, people will also have to take coronavirus tests two and eight days into their quarantine, with these booked in advance. Anyone who doesn’t take these tests will face a fine of up to £2,000.

Furthermore, there is the government’s so-called “red list” of countries, which forms the basis of ministers’ talk of “tough measures”.

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Foreign nationals who have been in or through any of the countries on this list are banned from entering the UK.

As of Wednesday, there were 33 countries on the red list, including Brazil and South Africa, where concerning new variants of COVID-19 have been identified.

However, the travel ban does not apply to UK and Irish nationals, who can still enter the UK if they have been in any of these countries in the past 10 days.

As of Monday in England, though, they will have to self-isolate in quarantine hotels – and pay £1,750. Anyone who fails to do can be hit with a fine of £5,000, rising to £10,000.

Do these measures go far enough?

Since the emergence of new variants, the UK’s border restrictions have become an increasingly important talking point.

Many have argued they have been too lax since the very beginning of the pandemic – home secretary Priti Patel among them.

It emerged last month that Patel had called for the borders to be shut to international visitors in March last year, when infections first began to rapidly spread in the UK, but was overruled by Johnson.

Watch: Labour says new border quarantine measure 'far too limited'

MPs have continued to point out issues with the restrictions.

On Tuesday last week, Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the House of Commons home affairs committee, asked why UK nationals who have been in South Africa over the past 10 days could still travel to Britain indirectly and get on public transport upon arrival.

While that will no longer be possible with the imposition of quarantine hotels on Monday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Johnson has “repeatedly delayed” introducing policies to “secure our borders against variants”.

Read more:

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Pointing to the Oxford research (at the top of this page) ranking worldwide border restrictions, Starmer said at PMQs on Wednesday that the UK is “not even in the top bracket”.

“Fifty days after we first discovered the South African variant,” Starmer asked, “how does the PM explain that?”

While there is concern over the South African variant, it should also be said Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, one of the UK’s top COVID advisers, made a point of playing down the impact of the South African variant earlier this week.

Urging people not to panic, he said there is “no reason” to think it will “overtake” the Kent variant that is currently dominant in Britain but has not been resistant to the vaccines.

What do strict border measures look like in other countries?

As set out above, there are at least 31 countries with tougher restrictions than the UK, including New Zealand.

New Zealand is one of the few worldwide examples of a country which has controlled the virus. As of Wednesday, there had been just 1,968 confirmed cases and 25 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to 3,985,161 cases and 114,851 deaths in the UK.

A key part of its strategy has been extremely strict border measures, which mean only New Zealand residents and citizens can enter the country.

Anyone who does enter has to stay in a “managed isolation” room for at least 14 days, and must test negative for COVID before they can re-enter the community.

The prime minister, defending the UK government’s policy on Wednesday, told Starmer at PMQs: “People should understand that on a normal day at this time of year, you can expect about 250,000 people to be arriving in this country.

“We’ve got it down to about 20,000, 5,000 of whom are involved in bringing vital things into this country such as medicines and food. Unless he actually wants to cut this country off from the rest of the world.”

The full list of 31 countries believed to have stricter controls than the UK is:

Algeria

Azerbaijan

Belarus

Burundi

Canada

Chad

Colombia

Denmark

Eritrea

Greenland

Hungary

Israel

Japan

Kiribati

Laos

Lesotho

Mongolia

Myanmar

New Zealand

Oman

Palestine

South Africa

Suriname

Thailand

Timor

Tonga

Trinidad and Tobago

Turkmenistan

Uruguay

Vanuatu

Venezuela

Vietnam

Yemen

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown