Ten year jail terms and £10,00 fines for breaking Covid travel rules as border controls tightened
Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen
Ten year jail terms are among a range of new punishments being brought in to improve compliance with border controls designed to block the arrival of new foreign Covid variants to the UK.
Jail terms could be given to anyone who lies on a passenger locator form to hide they have been to red-list country within ten days before arriving, from which travellers will have to quarantine in hotels for up to ten days.
Matt Hancock announced 16 hotels have been contracted for the enforced quarantine measures in England, which will be implemented from February 15.
Anyone arriving from one of the 33 red list countries will have to pay £1,750, which will cover the cost of their hotel stay, transport to the hotel, and their coronavirus tests.
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In a bid to strengthen border controls, the health secretary said anyone arriving in the UK from any country will need to take two Covid tests before being allowed to leave isolation, whether they are quarantining at home or a hotel.
PCR tests will be required on days two and eight, with the isolation period increasing by 10 days if either result is positive.
This is on top of a negative test result required 72 hours before travelling.
Scotland has announced similar measures, however it has gone a step further by requiring arrivals from all countries - not just red list - to quarantine in hotels upon arrival.
Wales, where there is currently no direct route for international travellers, has said it will be enforcing the same rules as the UK government.
Anyone in England who does not comply with the rules faces fines of up to £10,000.
"This includes a £1,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take a mandatory test, a £2,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take the second mandatory test, as well as automatically extending their quarantine period to 14 days, and a £5,000 fixed penalty notice - rising to £10,000 - for arrivals who fail to quarantine in a 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."
Mr Hancock said the measures will be put into law this week and more resources will be available to enforce them, adding: "I make no apologies for the strength of these measures because we're dealing with one of the strongest threats to our public health that we've faced as a nation."
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He pointed out that it is currently illegal for people to leave the country, unless for a limited number of legally permitted circumstances, and arrivals from red list countries are banned, except for UK nationals and residents.
Passengers required to stay in a quarantine hotel will need to reserve a room online in advance, the health secretary said, with the booking system opening on Thursday.
These travellers will only be allowed to enter the UK through a "small number of ports that currently account for the vast majority of passenger arrivals", Mr Hancock added.
People in hotels will be required to stay in their rooms throughout and will not be allowed to mix with others.
It follows the revelation on Monday that at least 147 cases of the South African strain had been identified in the UK so far, however a testing blitz around the country is likely to find more.
The government wants to secure its borders to minimise the risk of more foreign variants being imported to the UK and them interfering with the rollout of coronavirus vaccines.
The health secretary explained why the new measures were being brought in, saying responding to new variants is "mission critical".
He said the UK is "turning a corner" in its efforts to tackle Covid-19, but warned the numbers in hospital and deaths were "still far too high".
Both vaccines currently being used in the UK do prevent serious illness and death caused by the South African strain of coronavirus, according to Boris Johnson, but the Oxford jab is less effective at reducing mild disease cause by the variant.
A study into the E484K mutation contained on the South African variant - which involved some 2,000 people, most of whom were young and healthy - found the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offers only limited protection against mild disease.
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Labour has questioned why the requirement of hotel quarantine had not been extended to arrivals from every country in which variants of concern had been identified.
Highlighting the issue, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth asked: "Why are over half of [the countries with the South African variant] not on the so-called red list?"
He told the Commons: "Our first line of defence is surely to do everything we can to stop (new variants) arising in the first place.
"That means securing our borders to isolate new variants as they come in. He's announced a detailed package today but he hasn't announced comprehensive quarantine controls at the borders."
While the government wants to block further arrivals of foreign variants to the UK, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam says it's unlikely the South African strain will become the dominant in the coming months because it does not enjoy "transmissibility advantage" over other variants.
It's been reported that a third 'top-up' dose of coronavirus vaccines may be necessary in the future if variants mutate to escape current vaccines.
In a drive to vaccinate the four groups most vulnerable to coronavirus, over-70s who have not yet been offered a Covid jab are being encouraged to contact the NHS to arrange an appointment.
It comes with the government just days away from saying whether or not it has met its target for offering all people in the top four priority groups a Covid jab before the middle of February.
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Speaking at a Covid-19 Downing Street briefing, Mr Hancock said the country was "turning a corner" as he announced one in four adults in UK are now vaccinated.
He said 91% of over-80s and and 93% of eligible care home residents have had their first dose of the vaccine, 95% of those aged 75-79, and almost three quarters of those aged 70-74.
“We have now, as of today, vaccinated more than 12.2 million people – that’s almost one in four of all adults across the United Kingdom," Mr Hancock said.
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