Failure to introduce quarantine at the start of the outbreak saw up to 10,000 infected people enter the UK, accelerating the spread of disease, an investigation by MPs have said.
The all-party home affairs committee today (Wed) said the Government’s “inexplicable” decision to lift restrictions on some one million people who arrived in the UK between March 13 and lockdown on March 23 contributed to the pace and scale of the Covid-19 outbreak in Britain
They said this “highly unusual approach” to the pandemic contrasted with other countries from Singapore and New Zealand to Spain which were at the time introducing more comprehensive measures including quarantine and self-isolation for international arrivals.
Leading experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the MPs that they calculated up to 10,000 infected people largely from Spain, France and Italy - including families returning from half-term breaks - imported Covid-19 into the UK.
This was confirmed by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific officer, who pointed to evidence that hundreds of different strains of Covid-19 were brought into the UK after the Government abandoned special measures for international arrivals on March 13.
"The UK's experience of Covid-19 has been far worse as a result of the Government's decision not to require quarantine during March, which would have reduced the number of imported infections," said the MPs.
“Evidence shows it is highly likely that uncontrolled importations of the virus from European countries contributed to the rapid increase in the spread of the virus in mid-March, and the overall scale of the outbreak in the UK.
“The failure to have any special border measures during this period was a serious mistake that significantly increased both the pace and the scale of the epidemic in the UK, and meant that many more people caught COVID-19.”
From mid February until March 13, the Government told arrivals from countries including China, Iran and South Korea to self-isolate even if asymptomatic. A second category of countries such as Japan, Malaysia and Northern Italy recommended self-isolation if people developed symptoms.
These were abandoned in favour of voluntary “stay at home” guidance until full, legally-enforced lockdown was introduced on March 23.
The committee, however, said it “did not accept the argument that the introduction of voluntary ‘stay at home’ guidance for households with possible coronavirus infection on 13 March was enough reason to withdraw all guidance for returning travellers or visitors.
“Nor do we accept that falling numbers of arrivals justified the lifting of border measures in mid-March.”
The committee said it was "very critical" of the lack of transparency over Government border decisions. It raised concerns about the scientific advice being provided and said ministers appeared to make decisions without "critical information" being available.
It was still not clear who was responsible for some decisions and on what basis they were being made, and no Cabinet minister or official has so far been able to provide an explanation, according to the report.
The committee said it had been "unable to find any scientific basis or analysis behind the decision to lift border controls on March 13", which it branded "unacceptable" after making nine different formal requests for information and despite Government promises to make this available.
While supportive of the introduction of travel corridors, the committee urged the Government to publish the information on which it bases its decisions.
It welcomed the restrictions imposed on those travelling to Spain but added: "This has undoubtedly been extremely difficult for many travellers who paid for holidays in Spain following Government guidance in the expectation that they would be able to return to work, caring responsibilities, medical appointments or family events on their return.
"There should be significant changes to the way such decisions are handled and communicated in future."
The MPs also recommended the Government should investigate the viability of widespread or targeted testing at the border which is in place in countries like Iceland, Hong Kong and South Korea. They were “unconvinced” by Home Office estimates that the compliance rate for quarantine was 99.9 per cent.
A Government spokesman said: “The Home Affairs Select Committee are incorrect in their assertions. All of our decisions throughout the pandemic have been guided by the science, with appropriate measures introduced at the right time to keep us all safe.
“And with passengers numbers significantly reduced, the scientific advice was clear that quarantine measures for those entering the country from abroad would be most effective when the UK has a lower level of infection.
“Therefore, as the virus was brought under control here, border measures were introduced on June 8 to protect public health and help avoid a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS.”