Almost 2,500 people who arrived in the UK and tested positive for coronavirus over the course of three months could not be properly traced because they gave authorities the incorrect contact information.
A Freedom of Information request submitted to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) revealed that between February 14 and May 10 this year, 2,473 people failed to correctly complete their registration details on passenger locator forms, which must be filled in by law by all those entering the country.
It was not clear whether any had been prosecuted, but 52 of those who tested positive had a variant of concern.
Government guidance says it is “a criminal offence to provide false or deliberately misleading information when filling out your passenger locator form” and warns doing so could lead to a fine of up to £10,000 or 10 years in prison, or both, if accurate details are not provided.
And the period of time covered came after ministers had promised tougher measures at the border.
The failure to fill in the forms means public health officials may not have been able to ensure those who had tested positive had quarantined correctly and therefore did not spread the virus within the UK.
The Government has come under increasing pressure for its borders policy, with the Prime Minister facing criticism for not putting India on the red list of travel restrictions sooner when worries were mounting over the Delta variant, which was first identified in the country.
Boris Johnson previously said the UK “took the most drastic steps possible” to put India on the red list on April 23.
The DHSC figures showed three of those who had tested positive and could not be traced had travelled from what were at the time red-list countries, where cases of coronavirus were particularly high.
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “This shows there are still real gaps in the Government’s Covid border measures. For thousands of Covid cases to effectively be lost after they have arrived in the country is a real problem – and even more troubling when those include new variants that the Government is worried about.
“These are the kinds of gaps and errors in the system that make it easier for new variants like the Delta variant to spread across the country. We need a more robust system to identify, monitor and track cases of new variants to prevent them spreading in the community.
“The Government should be regularly publishing the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s assessment and analysis of new variants in different countries. And they need to review the monitoring and checking process to prevent cases getting lost.”
Conservative MP Huw Merriman, who is chairman of the Transport Select Committee, told the Abta Travel Matters conference on Tuesday that “the Government was lax in terms of securing our border in the early months of the pandemic and that seemed to come across well to public opinion and there was a lot of criticism as a result”.
During a portion of the time period covered by the FOI response, passengers from red-list countries had to pay £1,750 for quarantine hotels, while those arriving from elsewhere had to isolate at home for 10 days and order coronavirus tests.
A Government spokesperson said: “Our top priority has always been protecting the public, and our vaccine programme and the robust border and testing regime we have in place is helping minimise the risk of new variants coming into the UK.
“We have some of the toughest border measures in the world to protect our country and it is crucial that people comply with their duty to quarantine, as well as taking a test on day two and day eight following international travel from amber and red-list countries.
“We have rigorous checks at the border and Border Force is working to ensure that it has the right staffing levels to check that passengers are compliant with border health measures including having completed passenger locator forms.”