Scientists challenge moves to reopen borders

Leading scientific advisors in countries ahead of the UK in cutting Covid-19 infection rates have warned against relaxing border restrictions to allow mass market travel.

Advisors to the governments of Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand told the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee this week it was “premature for any kind of mass market holidays” and “not too late” to impose quarantine measures.

Professor Teo Yik-Ying, dean of the School of Public Health at Singapore’s National University, was asked if it was “a good idea” for people in the UK “to be able to take holidays”.

He told MPs: “No, it does not sound a good idea. Infection rates in many countries of Asia are less, but governments are not looking at tourism.

“They are looking at green lane arrangements for business travellers, not mass market travel. We are not talking about that.”

Professor Gabriel Leung, dean of Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, agreed. He told the committee: “It would be premature for any kind of mass market holidays.”

Singapore recorded 25 deaths from Covid-19 up to this week and Hong Kong four deaths, while New Zealand declared the country free of infection this week. However, all three states have strict quarantine measures in place on all arrivals.

The committee of MPs requested the scientists give evidence in light of UK quarantine measures imposed on June 8. They asked whether border restrictions remain important for countries with low Covid-19 infection rates.

Yik-Ying said: “It does not matter whether it [the infection rate] is getting better. Worldwide it isn’t. We face an upward trend.

“Until the rest of the world has the situation contained, we won’t risk relaxing travel restrictions to allow mass market travel.”

Leung agreed, saying: “Covid-19 is probably not containable. What is the purpose of restrictions? It is to prevent further seeding of a receding wave of infection in your country.

“Second, [it is] to make sure you do not overload the capacity of your health system.”

New Zealand epidemiologist Sir David Skegg told the committee that all internal restrictions in New Zealand were removed this week “except that we have very rigorous border restrictions”.

He said: ““The price we’re paying for relaxing internal restrictions is having tight border restrictions. I think the New Zealand population is very keen to enjoy what we’ve achieved and not put that at risk.”

UK introduced quarantine measures late, but ‘not too late’

The scientific advisors agreed on the need for travel restrictions, but differed on the rationale for imposing quarantine restrictions at this stage of the pandemic.

Leung warned: “Hong Kong, Singapore and London Heathrow are international travel hubs. You need to be extremely aware of connections, of transit [passengers] if thinking about any kind of ‘travel bubbles’ or ‘air bridges’.”

He told the committee: “There are essentially three control knobs for government – border restrictions, testing and tracing, and physical distancing, which is socially and economically the most disruptive.

“Once you relax any one of these factors you must be careful not to relax the others or you will face difficulties. Do not turn them up or down simultaneously.”

Leung said: “Testing capacity would need to be massively ramped up for any kind of travel even with air corridors and cross-border mutual tracing. Tracing within borders is difficult enough.”

Yik-Ying insisted: “Right now it is not too late to put in measures. Like London, Singapore is a travel hub. Any border measures affect our economy.

“If we do not close our borders, what would happen? We saw evidence there would be multiple waves of infection and additional closures have more significant consequences, not just on tourism.

“We know border controls incur significant impact on aviation and tourism, but it does allow the rest of the economy to recover if the infection is contained.”

However, Skeggs said: “It’s not clear what the UK strategy is. From the point of view of the UK health service, is quarantine going to make things better or worse? You could argue if you go to sit on a beach in Greece and get sick it would be better for the UK, but not for Greece.”

He told MPs: “It does not seem rationale to quarantine people coming from a country with a lower infection rate. Your highest priority should be testing much more extensively.”

But Skeggs added: “Border restrictions may still be effective. It depends on the strategy.

“The sense that there is a choice between health and the economy is misleading. New Zealand continues to trade. Our tourism is on hold, but there are enormous benefits to our economy being able to function as normal.”

Professor James Wilsdon, vice-chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice, told the committee: “We see a range of different border measures. Where the UK stands out is in its relatively late introduction of these measures.”

Quarantine in Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand

In Singapore, Professor Teo Yik-Ying of Singapore’s National University explained: “All incoming or returning Singaporeans are required to be in quarantine for 14 days regardless of country of origin and have been since March 24.

“Travellers have to declare their travel history. They are not allowed to leave their designated quarantine hotel and there is no meeting family or friends. Penalties are in place. There have been fines, deportations and even imprisonment.”

He noted: “We have green lane arrangements with China [for frequent corporate travellers] and are discussing green lanes with South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.

“The discussions centre around essential business travel not mass market tourism. The government is very clear – travel will likely be restricted.”

In Hong Kong, Professor Gabriel Leung of the University of Hong Kong said: “Currently, Hong Kong only admits Hong Kong identity card holders. It has stopped all transit flights.

“All inbound passengers have to undergo viral PCR testing and wait for the results. If they test positive they go to hospital. If negative they go to 14-day quarantine.”

“We imposed [restrictions] since February and layered on measures since, and have not relaxed any of it. No one can come in until they are tested and go either to isolation or quarantine for 14 days.”

In New Zealand: epidemiologist Sir David Skegg noted: “The border is closed to all but New Zealand citizens. There are certain exemptions, [but] all arrivals are quarantined for 14 days in a hotel under supervision. We did have self-isolation, but found it was often flouted.

“There are preliminary discussions with Australia about having a travel bubble, but it will not happen in the near future. Australia has not made as much progress on Covid.

“Over time there will be quarantine-free travel with Australia and Pacific countries.”


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