Act now to stop airports becoming “breeding grounds” for coronavirus, government urged

  • MPs warned airport queues are “breeding grounds” for coronavirus
  • 100 fake Covid certificates spotted by border staff each day, but many more believed to be falling through the cracks
  • Experts warn cases of Indian variant could be ten to twenty times higher than those detected so far

A representative of UK border staff has warned MPs that there is “little to no” evidence on how well people are adhering to quarantine rules, in an evidence session held today by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus.

Lucy Moreton, Professional Officer for the Immigration Services Union (ISU), also said that around 100 fake certificates claiming a passenger has had a negative Covid test are spotted by border staff every day, but added that most of these are caught if there is a spelling error. She warned that many certificates are in a foreign language which could make spelling mistakes harder to spot, and that the true number of fake documents being used was “inherently unknowable.”

Meanwhile, Dr Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of the Independent Sage committee, warned that the real incidence of the Indian variant could be up to twenty times higher than the 103 cases detected so far. This is because only around five to ten per cent of positive swabs in the UK are sent to laboratories where they are scanned for variants. Dr Scally added that adding India to the red list this week risked amounting to “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

Ms Moreton warned that “quarantine controls are based on trust” and “an assumption that people will do the right thing,” but added that “I’m not sure that the behavioural studies indicate that they do.” 

She also agreed that long queues at airports could be a “breeding ground” for the virus, warning that: “when it’s so slow and the queues are so bad, then absolutely it’s a significant risk to our members, the border force staff that are doing it, and to the travellers that are standing in those queues.” Ms Moreton said that while the introduction of e-gates could alleviate queues, the machines can’t check the pre-departure test certificates and will rely on people ticking forms confirming they’ve had a negative test, which could lead to a lack of compliance.

Professor Deenan Pillay, Professor of Virology at University College London and a member of Independent SAGE, told MPs that people queuing for hours indoors in the immigration hall before going on to quarantine “makes a nonsense of things.” Professor Pillay added that: “If I was in a lift with Boris Johnson I would say if he had responded to Covid with the speed that he responded to the Europe Super League proposals then we would be in a much better place.”

The APPG on Coronavirus is carrying out an ongoing cross-party inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and will be using today’s evidence session to make follow-up recommendations on border policy and international travel, after first recommending securing the UK’s borders in August last year.

Layla Moran MP, Chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said:

“The stark evidence we heard today exposed how current border checks are totally inadequate to stop Covid cases entering the UK, including dangerous variants.

“The government must act now to stop our airports becoming breeding grounds for the virus. That means reducing overcrowding in arrival halls, effectively separating passengers arriving from red list countries and carrying out thorough checks to root out fake documentation and ensure people comply with the rules.

“The government should be actively discouraging foreign travel and be transparent about the risks it carries, rather than using up a traffic light system that gives a false sense of security.

“Ministers must also ensure they are getting the basics right, from increasing financial support for those self-isolating to testing close contacts of those who test positive for the virus. We must ensure that the mistakes from the past year are not repeated and that the sacrifices of the British public do not go to waste.”

ENDS

Contact: Paul Haydon, 07988395025, [email protected]

Notes to Editor

Today’s APPG evidence session on Covid variants, borders and international travel is available to watch here: https://www.pscp.tv/w/1YqGoygvBYlxv

The session took place from 11.30am to 1pm, Tuesday 20 April and heard from the following witnesses:

  • Lucy Moreton: Professional Officer for the Immigration Services Union (ISU), which represents border immigration and customs staff in the UK.

  • Dr Gabriel Scally: Visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of the Independent Sage committee.

  • Dr Stephen Griffin: Associate professor in the school of medicine at the University of Leeds, specialising in viral oncology and antivirals.

  • Professor Deenan Pillay: Professor of Virology at University College London and a member of Independent SAGE.

  • Professor Lawrence Young: Professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick.

  • Professor Jon Deeks - leads the Biostatistics, Evidence Synthesis and Test Evaluation Research Group at the Institute of Applied Health Research. 

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has been conducting an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, and has so far held almost 20 hearings and made over 40 recommendations. In August 2021, the APPG called for  “screening on all UK entry points combined with quarantine at a regulated locations.”