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Coronavirus hotel quarantine: key questions for the government

The gaps and challenges the government must answer if it wants its quarantine system to be a success.

UK arrivals

The UK government is finalising arrangements for a partial hotel quarantine system to begin on 15 February 2021. This follows the announcement on 27 January that UK citizens and residents arriving from high-risk countries (currently numbering around 30) will be required to quarantine in designated hotels for 10 days, and subsequent confirmation that arrivals will be charged £1,750 for their stay.

The government has said the purpose of this policy is to “reduce the risk of a new variant of the virus being transmitted from someone coming into the UK” and to “protect the public and our world-class vaccination programme” from variants against which existing vaccines might prove to be ineffective. However, it has not been clear about whether it wants merely to reduce the number of infected travellers mixing in the community – and if so, by how much – or if its goal is to stop variants of concern entering the country altogether.

It is difficult to see how a selective quarantine system could achieve the latter. As SAGE has pointed out, there would be a time lag between a new variant arising and the government detecting it and shutting down travel from the relevant country. But even assuming the government’s goal is to reduce rather than stop the inflow of dangerous variants, there are big gaps in its proposed quarantine policy that will undermine its effectiveness. And it must also tackle the numerous, inherent challenges of setting up any kind of hotel quarantine system. 

This paper outlines those gaps and challenges, posing a series of questions the government must answer if it wants its quarantine system to be a success. It draws on past Institute for Government research on outsourcing, the government’s handling of testing and contact tracing, and pandemic co-ordination across the UK and devolved administrations – as well as the use of hotel quarantine schemes overseas (particularly in Australia). If the government cannot find good answers to these questions, soon, then its partial quarantine policy is likely to prove a costly failure – little more than expensive window dressing.

Johnson government
Institute for Government

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