Scottish Government 'has the power' to bring in stricter border controls

The Scottish Government has been labelled “incompetent” for not using available powers to stop potential cases of Covid-19 being imported into Scotland across borders.

The Scottish Government has been branded incompetent for not bringing in stricter border control measures.
The Scottish Government has been branded incompetent for not bringing in stricter border control measures.

The comments from the Scottish Liberal Democrats come after SNP MP Joanna Cherry wrote to the home secretary, Priti Patel, accusing the UK Government of “repeating the same mistakes” by not closing the border.

Nicola Sturgeon has been pressured by opposition politicians on the potential for stricter quarantine measures throughout the pandemic.

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One of her own advisers, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University Professor Devi Sridhar, has repeatedly said strict border measures such as test screening and “real quarantine procedures” are required to bring Covid-19 under control.

However, the Scottish Government has stuck to using mandatory but rarely enforced home quarantine for international travellers from some, but not all countries, and has refused to bring in testing at airports.

Screening of passengers has been standard procedure for European countries such as Italy, Finland and Norway, while countries such as Singapore and South Korea have strict screening processes and quarantine restrictions which are heavily enforced.

In Scotland, just 16 people were fined for breaching quarantine up to October 31, Scottish Government documents show.

While official border closures are a reserved matter, Professor Aileen McHarg, an expert in public law, said both the Public Health (Scotland) Act 2008 and the Coronavirus Act 2020 give the Scottish Government the power to do more at the borders.

Prof McHarg said: “I think both sets of powers would potentially allow for the sort of stricter measures that you mention, and it’s not clear why they have not been so used.

"I imagine one obstacle would be financial – it obviously costs the government money to detain people in a hotel or other testing/screening centre rather than to require them to quarantine at their own address.

"The other possible consideration might be the risk of human rights challenge. Any regulations made by the Scottish Ministers under either statute would have to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, and it might be that they are concerned that such severe restrictions on liberty might be open to challenge as being disproportionate."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the Scottish Government had a “duty to act” in order to protect the population from individuals “unwittingly” arriving in the country with Covid-19.

He said: "Dozens of countries have had airport testing in place for months and I have repeatedly pressed the Scottish government to do the same here.

"Six months ago the public could accept that the capacity was not there. Now it just looks incompetent.

"Some people will unwittingly travel with the virus so the government has a duty to act to keep people safe."

When asked why the Scottish Government had not taken a stricter approach to the borders, a spokesperson said a four nations approach was used “where possible” and all international travel without a reasonable excuse such as work “is unlawful” since December 26.

On stricter measures, they said alternative approaches are “actively considered” and it was crucial that “everyone understands that there should be no international travel except for essential purposes”.

They added: “We know that other countries have used this approach and we will always look to see if effective approaches elsewhere can work here.”

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