A cross-party report says the government is right to include Spain in current quarantine restrictions but criticises handling of calls for improvements in the way travel corridors are made.
The Home Affairs Committe today condemned the approach to border measures as accelerating the Covid-19 pandemic in the early months of the crisis.
The committee is “particularly critical” of the decision on March 13 to remove all self-isolation guidance for travellers arriving in the UK at a time when other comparable countries were strengthening their border measures.
This coincided with hundreds of people with new Covid cases arriving every day – particularly from Spain, Italy and France, including many British travellers returning home.
MPs on the committee were “unable to find any scientific evidence to justify this inexplicable decision”.
The failure to have any special border measures in place in mid-March was a “serious error”.
The report also found that the decision not to include Spain in the earlier country specific measures in late February was a mistake “as doing so could have slowed the virus spread”.
The report welcomes the introduction of border measures this summer, supports the development of travel corridors and the application of quarantine requirements for arrivals from Spain given the current rising number of infections there.
But it is critical of the handling and communication of the decision to remove the travel corridor with Spain and warned that the government “needs to be much more sensitive to the impact on families and businesses”.
It calls for publication of the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s traffic light assessment of different countries so that people can better judge the risk before travelling.
It criticised the lack of earlier warnings about the potential risks of travel and the mixed messages from government, with ministers welcoming air corridors on July 8 as “good news for holidaymakers.”
The committee said it “recognises the difficulties the government has faced in responding swiftly to the unprecedented challenges from Covid-19, and also recognises that border measures are only part of the response to the pandemic.
“But given the changing global pattern of the pandemic it says border measures will be needed for some time, so scrutiny is important to ensure the most effective measures are put in place at the right time.”
Committee chair Yvette Cooper said: “Given that mistakes were made at the beginning, the government has been right to learn lessons and to reintroduce border measures including applying quarantine for arrivals from Spain as infections are rising.
“But it was very unhelpful for Ministers to describe the travel corridors as ‘good news for holidaymakers’ when they were announced as the mixed messages meant people booked holidays in Spain in good faith and now are put in a really difficult position.
“The government needs to be much more sensitive to the impact on families and businesses of last-minute decisions like this, and it needs to publish much more information including a proper traffic lights system so that people can see what the risks are.”
Cooper added: “We support the development of travel corridors to recognise the different prevalence of the virus in different countries, but we urge the government to be more transparent and publish the analysis behind its decisions.
“It will build more support for the difficult balancing judgements it has to take if it is open about the evidence behind them.
“Given the surge in Covid infections in Spain and the clear and rising risk of increasing numbers of people returning to the UK with Covid-19, a precautionary approach including quarantine for returning travellers is the right one.
“It is welcome that the government has learned from what happened earlier in the crisis when measures were not in place as infections were rising.
“However, 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.”
And she warned: “Border quarantine measures are likely to remain in place for some time, particularly if the predicted increase in cases over winter months comes to fruition.
“The UK will have to maintain a flexible approach that reacts quickly to emerging circumstances and learn from practice in other countries.
“Greater clarity would be helpful on the government’s overall objectives for its border measures and travel corridors as part of the wider strategy against Covid-19, including how it is balancing public health and economic considerations.
“Maintaining transparency and trust will be vital if public confidence in self-isolation and quarantine measures following international travel is to be sustained in the long-term.”
But a Home Office spokeswoman said the committee were “incorrect in their assertions”.
She told the BBC: “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.”
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