Nicola Sturgeon’s threat to draw up a separate quarantine regime for Scotland has been undermined after it emerged that not a single check had been carried out on travellers obliged to stay at home under existing rules.
Jeane Freeman, the Health Secretary, admitted on Sunday that no follow-ups had been carried out on arrivals to Scottish airports, four weeks after a system that requires people arriving from abroad to go into self-isolation for 14 days was brought in.
Travellers had been warned that they would face a £480 fine if they broke the rules, with the penalty rising to up to £5,000 if they were prosecuted. While at the time SNP ministers suggested that spot-checks would be carried out to ensure rules were being followed, Ms Freeman said a lack of clearance from the Home Office to access travel records, which are collected by the UK Border Force, was to blame for no-one being contacted.
Although she said the issue had now been resolved and that follow-ups would begin this week, the revelations raise new questions about how any separate rules for Scotland in relation to ‘air bridges’ could be enforced.
Ms Sturgeon has so far refused to sign up to the UK Government’s plan for quarantine-free travel arrangements to people arriving from 59 destinations, saying she has concerns about visitors from some of the countries bringing Covid-19 to Scotland.
Jackson Carlaw, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, described the episode as the “latest testing and checking failure from the SNP”. He said travellers arriving elsewhere in the UK had been contacted up to three times to ensure they were following the rules.
“We will not be able to exit lockdown safely until the SNP gets its act together,” he said. “It’s clear that behind Nicola Sturgeon there is an entire team simply not up to the task.”
Police Scotland had already confirmed that no fines had been issued for breaking the quarantine rules.
Public Health England said they had been contacting about one in five arrivals to England and Northern Ireland to ask them if they were self-isolating. If they do not reach them after four days, details are passed to the police.
Prof Stephen Reicher, an expert in crowd psychology at the University of St Andrews, said it was “blindingly obvious” that there should have been some way of assessing whether the quarantine rules were being followed and, if this did not happen, that compliance could be undermined.
“People are asked to isolate and we have no idea if they are isolating or not,” he told The Sunday Post. “So a policy where we don’t know whether it’s working or not is not a great policy.”
Ms Sturgeon is expected to announce early this week whether she will sign up to the UK Government’s plan for travel corridors, or seek to exempt certain countries meaning travellers from those nations would still be expected to self-isolate if they came to Scotland.
She said repeated changes to the list by UK ministers meant that she was unable to agree to the proposals when they were published on Friday, and vowed to study the list further and seek expert advice. The system is due to come into force in England on July 10.
If separate rules were brought in, it remains unclear how travellers from countries left off the list by Scotland could be identified, particularly if they flew into an English airport and then travelled to Scotland by road or rail.
Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, again refused to rule out imposing quarantine measures on people travelling from England, where coronavirus cases are higher than in Scotland.
“The fact is, you can see the prevalence rate here is much lower so we need to look at those coming in here and the kind of risks that are there but any decisions that will be taken by the Scottish Government will be based on the scientific advice that we get and keeping people safe,” he told Sky News.
“The simple fact of the matter is, we have had a reasonable success in driving down the incidence of the virus over the course of the last few months, it’s been hard won and of course we have to take the appropriate measures to make sure that we can continue to see that.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said checks on travellers expected to quarantine under existing rules would begin “imminently”.
He added: “Quarantine regulations exist to protect people and limit the introduction of new chains of transmission of the virus.
“Everyone entering Scotland from abroad must complete a Passenger Locator Form with onward travel and contact details, including where they will be staying, and self-isolate for 14 days. Border Force report good compliance and throughout all of this, passengers have been made aware of the quarantine requirements in Scotland.
“The outstanding issues, including giving Public Health Scotland staff access to passenger contact data collected in transit and stored by the Home Office, and ensuring appropriate data governance, are now resolved. Follow-up calls will begin imminently, including retrospective cases of travellers who have arrived into Scotland in the last two weeks.”