Passengers arriving at Heathrow airport on January 16 2021
Health secretary Matt Hancock says the threat of coronavirus mutations means ‘we must strengthen our defences’ as he announced fines, including one that rises to £10,000 for arrivals from high-risk countries who refuse to go to a quarantine-designated hotel © Andy Rain/EPA

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Passengers arriving in England who try to conceal they have been to countries on a list of high-risk destinations face up to 10 years in jail as part of a series of tough new quarantine restrictions announced on Tuesday by health secretary Matt Hancock.

Amid growing concerns among ministers over the threat from new coronavirus mutations, Hancock also said that from Monday all travellers coming to the country would need to take two Covid-19 tests on the second and eighth day after arriving. They will also have to produce a negative test within 72 hours before departure.

“We must strengthen our defences,” he told MPs. “Everyone has a part to play in making our borders safe.”

He spoke as Sir Jeremy Farrar, one of the UK’s top scientific advisers, warned that early signs the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was less effective at stopping mild and moderate cases of the South African coronavirus variant were a “worrying harbinger” for 2021.

Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust medical charity and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said biological and immunological pressure would “undoubtedly” lead to more variants around the world this year that could have higher transmission rates, higher fatality rates and be more difficult to prevent.

Signs of the reduced efficacy of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against the 501.V2 variant in a limited South Africa study have caused the country to suspend rollout of the jab pending more data.

Oxford university and AstraZeneca have said their vaccine should still protect against severe cases of the disease and that they are working on a tweaked shot that could be available before the end of the year.

England’s new quarantine regime for overseas travellers aims to stop new variants entering the country. Although the new measures significantly tighten the current quarantine system, opposition politicians — and some ministers — have consistently questioned the government’s slow introduction of the regime and whether border restrictions should be even tighter.

Hancock announced £1,000 fines for any international arrival to England who fails to take a mandatory coronavirus test. There will be a new £5,000 fixed-penalty notice, rising to £10,000, for arrivals from high-risk countries who refuse to go to a quarantine-designated hotel.

He added: “Anyone who lies on the passenger locator form and tries to conceal that they’ve been in a country on the red list in the 10 days before arrival here, will face a prison sentence of up to 10 years.”

But Labour’s health spokesperson Jonathan Ashworth called for Hancock to go further, while the Scottish government said the UK government’s “reactive” approach was “not sufficient” to protect against new coronavirus variants.

In a separate announcement on Tuesday, Edinburgh said it would require all people arriving from outside the UK’s common travel area with Ireland — not just those coming from the 33 nations on the so-called “red list” — to go into the new hotel quarantine system.

Michael Matheson, Scottish transport secretary, said Scotland would use the UK government’s hotel booking system and would seek its help to identify travellers who needed to quarantine.

The UK government is also in touch with the devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland and is liaising with the Irish government in Dublin.

Scientists have also questioned whether this “red list” goes far enough, given that the 501.V2 variant, first identified in South Africa, has now been identified in at least 41 countries, according to the World Health Organization. The P. 1 variant, which originated in Brazil, has been found in at least 14. The list is due to be updated this Thursday.

However, Sage member Prof Graham Medley said measures to tighten controls at the border would not prevent transmission of new variants entirely and would only slow their spread.

“You cannot stop it, you can only slow it down,” said Medley, who is also chair of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M). “You don’t know where the variants are, you can’t be 100 per cent sure.”

Hancock said the government had now struck deals with 16 hotels to provide 4,600 rooms for the new quarantine system — a fraction of the estimated 28,000 that are needed over the first month of the scheme.

The rooms booked so far are only enough to cover three days at an estimated rate of 1,425 incomers a day from red list countries.

Slow progress in signing up hotel groups for the quarantine scheme reflects operators’ unhappiness at the UK government’s refusal to provide financial guarantees while expecting them to cancel all future bookings.

Hoteliers said the government was offering to pay only for rooms used for quarantining passengers despite requiring that the hotels be open only to such guests, resulting in a potential loss of revenue.

Non-UK residents from the 33 red list countries are already banned from entering Britain. British residents, however, can return home from them if they take part in the supervised hotel quarantine.

Hancock said these individuals would have to book through an online platform, which will go live on Thursday, and pay £1,750 for hotel, transport and testing.

Yet travellers entering the country can still cut quarantine from 10 days to five if they use the existing “Test and Release” programme — so long as they take tests on the second, fifth and eighth days. 

Countries on the UK’s ‘red list’

Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Eswatini, French Guiana, Guyana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, Suriname, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe

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