‘Serious thought’ must be given to introducing border checks to stop travellers entering Scotland by landing elsewhere in the UK, Jean Freeman has warned, amid confusion just days before new quarantine rules come into force.
The health secretary told the Scottish Government’s daily coronavirus briefing that key details of the “managed isolation” measures are still being finalised.
Ms Freeman said discussions are continuing on the new regime – under which arrivals in Scotland from any foreign country will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days – but vowed these would be “finalised in time”.
With the regulations due to come into effect on Monday, the broad rules around who needs to quarantine, how they can do so and how much they will need to pay are known but finer details are still being resolved.
Questions remain over what exemptions will be in place for industries such as the oil and gas sector, what testing will be available for hotel workers and whether travellers will be allowed to leave their rooms for fresh air.
It also comes amid a blistering row between the Scottish and UK governments over how to close a loophole that would allow people to enter the UK through an English airport before traveling to Scotland to avoid tougher restrictions north of the border.
A tougher stance
In England only travellers arriving from so-called “red list” countries will need to quarantine, so there are fears some could look to circumvent the £1,750-a-head accommodation fee required to enter Scotland.
Discussions are ongoing but Ms Freeman said Scotland may need to look at other options to prevent coronavirus being brought across the border.
“We continue to discuss with the UK Government because we think their approach, which confines itself to the red zone areas, is insufficient, and we continue to work with them to try and persuade them that they should adopt the tougher stance that we’re adopting,” Ms Freeman said.
“However while we do that, we do have to give serious thought to the options that may be available to us. Many will enter the UK via the major airport hubs in London, Manchester and elsewhere and will then travel to Scotland.
“So we will need to work through with the UK Government how that will be managed, how we will know that and if there is a need for other measures at the border.
“Of course, that is an operational issue for our chief constable, he will be giving that come consideration, but the decision around that should remain with him.”
A family of equals
Ms Freeman said her government was “very clear” that no-one who has travelled internationally should enter Scotland without being part of managed quarantine.
But UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that passengers arriving in England from “low risk” countries would be required to quarantine at home – even if their home is in Scotland.
Ms Freeman said: “It’s deeply disappointing that, as part of a family of equals, one partner isn’t prepared to help the other partner enforce the policy that they think is the right policy for the people they represent.
“The discussions will continue, because we are, as we have always been, keen where we can to reach a four-nation approach to deal with a virus that doesn’t respect boundaries and borders.
“But in the meantime, we will work through what the options are to mitigate where the UK Government stance creates a loophole in what the Scottish Government believes is exactly the right thing to do.”
Fear and uncertainty
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said he was concerned by the “drip, drip” of updates to travel restrictions and possible border checks.
He said such speculation “just spreads real fear and uncertainty” and called on both governments to work together to resolve the issue.
“I think there is a route we can take for the two governments to share advice, to negotiate with each other and come to a reasonable conclusion,” Mr Ross said.
“Let’s just get around the table and sort it out rather than one side or another saying the other side is not speaking to them or not doing enough.”
Downing Street has insisted its hotel quarantine policy is “in line” with other countries, despite being warned by an Australian epidemiologist that allowing travellers to leave their room for fresh air is “very risky”.
Professor Michael Toole, from the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, Victoria, said rules in Australia had to be strengthened to reduce the chance of airborne transmission – suggesting England should adopt similar measures.
He said there have been Covid-19 cases in the city where an infected guest opened their room door and “with the positive pressure, this kind of fog of virus went out into the corridor, travelled down and infected hotel staff”.
Downing Street said travellers would be allowed outside for exercise “with permission from hotel staff” but stressed the list of exemptions to staying inside the hotel room is “quite limited”. It appears similar rules will be in place in Scotland.
Meanwhile, Ms Freeman said the number of vaccination appointments will soon have to be reduced due to a “combination of circumstances” including remarkably high uptake and “a temporary reduction in supply from Pfizer”.
But this was disputed by a UK Government spokeswoman, who said there is “currently no issue with vaccine manufacture or supply and we are still confident that the steady, regular supply of doses will continue to support the vaccine rollout right across the UK in the weeks ahead”.
The spokeswoman added: “As Pfizer have said, the overall projected supply for the UK remains unchanged for January to March 2021.”