A 14-day quarantine for people arriving in the UK was described as “ineffective and unenforceable” after the Home Secretary faced a backlash from the travel industry and Tory MPs.
From June 8, anyone arriving in Britain - apart from those on a specific list of exemptions - will be legally required to self-isolate for two weeks or face fines of up to £3,200.
But there were already signs on Friday night that the scheme could be short-lived, as Priti Patel said it was being kept under review and that she would be working with the travel industry to refine the scheme before it begins.
The Home Secretary also confirmed that “air bridges” between Britain and other countries with a similar or lower coronavirus infection rate are expected to be brought in, though Government sources said they will be rebranded “travel corridors” because they also apply to ferries and the Channel Tunnel.
Critics of the system claimed Friday night that it is so full of flaws that it will do nothing to prevent a second wave of the virus and that it amounted to a “blunt tool” that could shut down aviation.
The Home Secretary said passengers will be expected to fill in forms before they leave their country of origin specifying the address where they will be quarantined in the UK, but the only enforcement will be spot checks at airports, with a £100 fine if people fail to comply.
Spot checks will also be carried out to make sure people are at their quarantine address, but the system will rely almost entirely on good faith.
Ireland is exempt from the scheme, meaning passengers could simply fly to Dublin and then on to the UK to get round quarantine measures. Although Ireland has its own quarantine in place, it is understood that this would not stop people transiting through Ireland to get to the UK. There will also be nothing to stop travellers from using public transport to get to their quarantine address in the UK, meaning they could spread the virus in transit.
Ms Patel told the daily Downing St press conference: “We expect the vast majority of people to do the right thing and comply with these new requirements...we will review these temporary public health measures every three weeks to ensure they remain the right ones for our roadmap to recovery.”
Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair, said it was “strongly opposed to ineffective non-scientific measures such as the UK’s ‘quarantine’, which is completely unenforceable”.
A spokesman for the airline said: “This isolation measure simply does not work unless passengers arriving in international UK airports are detained in airport terminals or hotels for the 14-day period.
“Once these arriving passengers have travelled on the crowded London Underground, or the Heathrow and Gatwick Express, or buses or taxis to their destination, the subsequent quarantine is pointless.
“If this measure had any basis in ‘science’, then the Irish visitors would not and could not be exempt.”
David Davis, the former Tory Brexit secretary, said: “And the thing that worries me is how carefully this has been thought through. The timing is odd. Other countries like Greece introduced pretty much quarantine arrangements very, very early on and as a result, Greece is 30 times better off in deaths per million than we are.
“And we’re now in a position where we’re going to say to Greeks, coming here, ‘well you’re going to have to have 14 days in quarantine’, whereas if I come down from Doncaster, I go through King’s Cross without a stop.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of trade body Airlines UK, said: “Introducing a quarantine at this stage makes no sense and will mean very limited international aviation at best.
“It is just about the worst thing Government could do if their aim is to restart the economy.
“Thousands of jobs and the recovery of the UK economy depend on re-establishing air links as soon as possible.”
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said quarantine was a “blunt tool” that could lead to “a prolonged shutdown of aviation”.
She told a committee of MPs that airports wanted internationally-agreed standards that could include thermal checks, masks, hand sanitizers and air bridge proposals.
She said: “We think this would be a much better approach to this because it would be much more risk based and therefore reduce the economic impact which is going to be huge but at the same time achieve the safety we are looking for.”
Adam Marshall, chief executive of the British Chambers of Commerce, agreed with Ms Dee’s proposals and said businesses would be “deeply concerned” by the quarantine because it will “damage international business and investor confidence at a time when it is vital to demonstrate that the UK can open for business safely”.