Otto English investigates multiple shocking accounts of a complete lack of COVID-19 checks for those arriving in the UK from abroad.

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Editorial Note

New research on England’s extreme ‘excess mortality’ during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that this may be because of “London’s international connectedness”. See below for a timeline of warnings from the World Health Organisation (WHO) on international travel and the UK Government’s failure to impose airport checks.

At the Government’s daily Coronavirus briefing on 18 May, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam defended the strategy of only imposing quarantine on travellers flying into the country once the immediate storm has passed. It may seem counter-intuitive, but with transmission significantly down, there is good sense in imposing restrictions as matters improve. Unfortunately, when asked why the UK had not sought to do this at the start of the crisis, Professor Van-Tam stumbled over his dates.

“We did do it before. On the 29th of February and then on the 30th of February, we announced that travellers returning from the hotspot of Wuhan and then Hubei province, respectively… must self-isolate at home for 14 days.”

Britain went it alone – as far as I can tell – among the nations of the world by keeping its borders completely open.

The “30th of February” does not exist – indeed it hasn’t since Sweden last observed it in 1712. The blunder was picked up by people – including myself – who spread it across Twitter like wild-fire. At first, it seemed quite funny but then, as my tweet clocked up many thousands of shares, I began to feel a little guilty. These are difficult times and even the very best people can make errors.

Of course, Professor Van-Tam should have gone back and corrected himself, but it is easy for me to say that when I’m not standing in his shoes, giving a live broadcast to millions of people. The professor is clearly a serious, no-nonsense, level-headed expert who doesn’t shy from telling it as it is. We need such people at the moment and, while mocking him for muddling up a date may have seemed amusing in the second I wrote my tweet, frankly what good was it doing? 

All of us have a responsibility in this crisis – including me – and, while ridicule can serve a purpose, the derision was averting attention from far more important matters: the Government’s handling of COVID-19.  

Out of a sense of guilt, and perhaps trying to extract some good from my errant tweet, I posted a second post below it, inviting people to share their experiences of entering the country since the Coronavirus crisis began. The subsequent response was overwhelming – and not in a way that provides any shred of faith in the Government.

I received hundreds of responses, all of which relayed variations on the same depressingly similar story.

Meghan said: “I flew into Stansted from Madrid on 12 March, at which point the situation in Madrid/Spain was clear. Not even one check when handing over my passport. I was asked where I was coming from. [When] I replied, I was asked if it was nice and sunny there.”

Clara told me about her brother who arrived back from Australia on 23 March. As he transferred through other countries, his temperature was constantly read – but back in the UK there were “absolutely no checks” and he just breezed in.

This could not have been more different to the Australian approach. In late April, the Government in Canberra declared that it would be locking down its airports and sealing its borders altogether for three months. Passengers flying in during the period immediately prior to that were emailed and informed that they would have to endure mandatory quarantine for 14 days. By contrast, anyone heading the other way could walk straight through arrivals at Heathrow.

Nicci’s parents flew back to the UK from New Zealand on 8 April, having been stuck there for a number of weeks thanks to the country’s lockdown. After their 30-hour flight, including stop-offs in other countries, they asked airport staff if they should self-isolate – only to be told that the UK Government had said “they didn’t need to” unless they had a cough.

Incredibly, as the global crisis worsened, Britain went it alone – as far as I can tell –among the nations of the world by keeping its borders completely open and imposing almost no compulsory (or even random) health checks on passengers arriving in the country.


Via Hilary Abernathy

24 January: The WHO advises screening, interviews and contact tracing in “affected areas” – by this time most of Europe.

27 January: updated WHO guidance stresses the importance of screening international travellers.

11 February: The WHO emphasises again that ‘containment’ requires checking airport staff and strict quarantine measures.

26 February: Health Secretary Matt Hancock promises ‘extended measures’ at airports. They never materialise.

29 February: The WHO specifically criticises the lack of airport checks to contain COVID-19.

Professor Van-Tam rightly pointed out that, in the early weeks of February when the virus was seemingly confined to China, passengers from Hubei were quarantined on arrival in the UK. But, as the health tsunami spread and swept inexorably towards Britain, no action was taken to stem the flow of travellers from other badly infected countries or to check if they had symptoms.

Open Borders, Open Target

It seems that thousands of passengers – repatriating themselves from countries as diverse as Italy, Spain, Morocco, Iran, Taiwan, South Korea, South America, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Hong Kong – were able to just stroll back into the UK, get on public transport and travel across the country.

One person who contacted me was brave enough to admit that he may inadvertently have carried the Coronavirus into the UK. Carl said that, when he flew back from Barcelona on 5 March, arrivals were no different to any other time. 

“I believe I brought it back with me too as I developed all the symptoms that are now recognised,” he said. “I played football, attended meetings, events in the weeks prior to lockdown… I felt horrible for three or four weeks and thought it was just a horrible sinus head cold and cracked on.”

It is mind-boggling that a Government so obsessed with borders and free movement should have demonstrated such disregard for the very things that define its ideological position.

Barcelona locked down a few days after his return to the UK. As Carl arrived at the UK’s passport control, the scale of the crisis unfolding in Spain was evident. He, like everyone else I have spoken to, was astonished that the Government was seemingly unconcerned about the COVID-19 outbreak and was not taking matters seriously.

Apart from a few randomly placed posters, travellers report that there was no advice on what to do – and that social distancing measures were noticeable by their absence. We of course live in an interconnected world so actually anyone coming in from anywhere could have been carrying the virus. But perhaps the UK Border Control had different orders and priorities.

Mike said that he travelled overland from Portugal on 5 April. 

“The only person not wearing protective equipment at Eurotunnel checks was the UK border guard who came into our camper van to look for illegal immigrants, potentially exposing herself (and us) to infection,” he said. “We were given no information about self-quarantine… and were not asked where we were going.”

The numbers of people entering the UK are now far lower than usual, but we don’t know exactly how many passengers are coming into the country on a daily basis because the exact figures aren’t available. Estimates range from between 10,000 to 25,000 people a day.

What we do know is that, throughout the crisis and even during the UK lockdown, our air and seaports have remained defiantly open. We might not have been able to visit elderly relatives in care homes but, over the past three months, anyone able to get on a British-bound flight has been able to come straight into the country, go off into the transport system and travel about – potentially spreading the virus. 

It seems mind-boggling that a Government so obsessed with borders and free movement should have demonstrated such wilful disregard for the very things that define its ideological position – even as it implements a pernicious Australian-style immigration system. But, then this is also an administration gripped by that other deadly plague – libertarianism. Closing frontiers and imposing checks goes against Boris Johnson’s permissive instincts, even if it means adding to a massive healthcare crisis and results in the death of thousands of people.

We will have to wait for an inquiry to determine how culpable the UK Government was in aiding and abetting the invisible mugger that has ripped up our lives and felled our economy. But one brief perusal of its catastrophic border strategy hints that history will not be kind.

All names have been changed


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