The Government’s decision to threaten travellers with a jail sentence of up to 10 years if they lie about visiting a country with a high risk of Covid-19 variants, has been criticised by leading Conservatives.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve called the punishment “entirely disproportionate”, adding that ministers had made a “mistake”.
The i newsletter latest news and analysis
On Tuesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a crack down on travelling to ensure new and infectious coronavirus strains are not imported into the UK from abroad which could hamper efforts to tackle the pandemic.
UK nationals or residents returning to England from 33 “red list” countries – including Portugal, South Africa and Brazil – must spend 10 days self-isolating in a Government-designated hotel at a cost of £1,750 each from Monday.
The charge will also cover accommodation transfers, food and testing. Sixteen hotels have been contracted to provide 4,600 rooms. Failure to quarantine could result in a fine of between £5,000 and £10,000.
Travellers must also have a negative Covid-19 test 72 hours before they depart for the UK and a completed passenger locator form, which contains information about their travel journey. Anyone who attempts to conceal that they have been to one of the high-risk countries on the UK’s travel ban list faces prosecution and up to 10 years in jail or a £10,000 fine.
Mr Hancock told MPs that he made “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”.
But the approach has proved controversial, with some criticising the length of the possible sentence for concealing journey details.
“Ten years is entirely disproportionate, and I was trying to work out why this figure had been plucked out of the air,” Mr Grieve told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“This is a regulatory offence, and no regulatory offence I can think of attracts a 10-year sentence.
“The reality is that nobody would get such a sentence anyway, the courts are simply not going to impose it.”
Mr Grieve added: “To suggest that a 10-year sentence is going to result from a false declaration on a form on landing at Heathrow Airport is, I think, a mistake because it’s exaggerated, it’s not going to happen.”
Sir Geoffrey Cox, who served as attorney general under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, told The Daily Telegraph: “I get that the Secretary of State wants to show that this is serious but you do have to have regard to the overall balance of sentencing policy and law.”
Former Supreme Court justice Lord Jonathan Sumption also criticised the new travel measures, writing in the Telegraph: “Does Mr Hancock really think that non-disclosure of a visit to Portugal is worse than the large number of violent firearms offences or sexual offences involving minors, for which the maximum is seven years?”
Enhanced testing for travellers
Under the new rules, all arrivals at English ports must undergo “enhanced testing” while quarantining whether in a hotel or at home. Two tests will be required, one on day two and one on day eight of the 10-day self-isolation period.
Those who fail to take a test face a £1,000 fine, followed by a £2,000 penalty and an extension to their quarantine period to 14 days if they miss the second test.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has defended the measures, saying that the British public “would expect pretty strong action”.
In Scotland, all international travellers will be required to stay in a quarantine hotel. No international flights are operating to Wales or Northern Ireland.
It is unclear how long the new travel measures will remain in place for. Work is ongoing to establish the effectiveness of the current Covid-19 vaccines against new variants of the virus, including the South African strain which has been identified in the UK.
Additional reporting by PA
— to inews.co.uk