Scottish Government accused of ‘jumping the gun’ over quarantine changes

The Scottish Government has said its quarantine decisions are based on available “scientific evidence” amid an escalating row between it and the UK Government over quarantine restrictions.

Friday, 4th September 2020, 4:51 pm
Updated Friday, 4th September 2020, 5:21 pm
A 14-day quarantine period has been reintroduced for those flying from Portugal into Scotland. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
A 14-day quarantine period has been reintroduced for those flying from Portugal into Scotland. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

A spokesman for the Scottish Government described the decision made by the UK to announce Portgual’s retention to their travel exemption list as “unfortunate” and strongly rejected the suggestion Nicola Sturgeon had “jumped the gun”.

It came amid fresh meetings between the Scottish Conservatives and airport bosses with transport spokesman Graham Simpson calling on the Scottish Government to allow passenger testing in a bid to save the ailing aviation industry.

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The row between Holyrood and Westminster flared again on Friday when UK transport secretary Grant Shapps said the decision from Scotland and Wales to change their guidance on quarantine when returning from Portugal “causes confusion”.

He told Sky News: “I do realise it creates confusion for people not to have a single rule, but we do have this devolved approach throughout the United Kingdom and I can only be responsible for the English part of that.”

The Cabinet minister said the UK Government’s review concluded no changes were necessary partly because test positivity in Portugal came down while the number of cases overall in Greece had fallen.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The Scots decided, without using the Joint Biosecurity Centre data for this particular decision, that the people from Greece would be excluded and sort of jumped the gun on that and it is their right to do it but it doesn’t make the overall message any clearer.”

However the comments sparked a stern response and a rejection from the Scottish Government that their decision was made based on any evidence other than science.

The Scottish Government insisted the decision was made based on appropriate scientific evidence and blasted the UK Government for the “unfortunate” decision to keep Portugal exempt from quarantine, a decision they claim was made without discussions between ministers from all four countries.

A Scottish Goverment spokesman said: “Our decisions on quarantine measures for travellers are based on the scientific evidence available.

“We have, for the most part, aligned closely with the approaches taken by the others three governments and regular discussions continue with them. But ultimately, we make judgements on how best to keep the people of Scotland safe and that sometimes means our decisions differ from those made by the other three governments.

“In the case of Greece, we had a worrying number of people in Scotland who had tested positive for COVID-19 and who had returned from Greece within seven days of the onset of symptoms. The Scottish Government could not afford to ignore that growing threat to public health.

“In the case of Portugal, it was unfortunate that the UK Government announced their decision yesterday before Ministers from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland met and before considering the latest Joint Biosecurity Centre data. This indicated a significant rise in both the prevalence of the virus in Portugal and in test positivity.

“As Ministers have said repeatedly, we are in the midst of a global pandemic and the situation in many countries can change suddenly. Therefore, people should think very hard before committing to non-essential travel abroad.”

There had been speculation that Westminster would reimpose the requirement on Portugal due to a spike in Covid-19 cases, leading many holidaymakers to pay hundreds of pounds to fly home this week.

In Wales, the need to isolate for 14 days when arriving from Portugal, Gibraltar and seven Greek islands came into force at 4am on Friday.

Meanwhile passengers arriving into Scotland from Portugal will have to quarantine from 4am on Saturday, as well as those arriving from French Polynesia and travellers from anywhere in Greece must enter quarantine from Thursday.

There were 418 coronavirus cases recorded in Portugal on Thursday which was the country’s largest daily amount since July 10 and brings its seven-day rate of cases per 100,000 people up to 23.1.

A rate of 20 is the threshold above which the UK Government has considered triggering quarantine conditions.

The decision to add Portugal to the Scottish quarantine list was criticised by aviation industry figures.

Mike Tibbert, vice president of Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association which represents travel agents accused the Scottish Government of “playing games” and of “tooing and froing” with quarantine restrictions.

He said: “It feels as if the government is playing games, with all its half announcements and teasers. The entire travel sector and the travelling public need consistency and clear, well timed messaging, not a drip drip of what might or might not happen and which country might be added to or removed from the ‘safe list’.

“But the tooing and froing on the safe list versus quarantine is actually distracting from the main issue which is the total lack of immediate support for the travel sector and the complete absence of a strategic plan to save future travel.

“Once lost, our connectivity to the rest of the world - and consequently theirs to us - will disappear. And once this happens and we lose flight routes, it will be years before we can rebuild these.

“Is the government considering the impact this will have on Scottish and UK economy? It’s time that everyone realised this is not just about sunseeking holidaymakers and is everything about the devastation this will have on our ability to do business with the rest of the world and vice versa.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish Conservatives called on Nicola Sturgeon to introduce passenger testing at airports, a measure many in the aviation industry argue would help limit or even eradicate the need for quarantine.

Scottish Conservative transport spokesman, Graham Simpson MSP, said: “Over the last 24 hours, I have held discussions with senior management teams at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen airports.

“Scotland’s airports have told me clearly that the Scottish Government must agree a passenger testing regime immediately. They cannot wait any longer. Even the threat of quarantine is stopping people from flying.

“Thousands of jobs are already under threat. The airline industry is at risk of collapse and the SNP Government must get round the table with airport bosses and tell them how they intend to stop the situation spiralling any further.”

However, Mr Shapps, a member of the same party as Mr Simpson and in government at Westminster, said testing at airports is not a “silver bullet solution” to end quarantining and the “vast majority” of asymptomatic cases would not be detected by one test alone.

Nicola Sturgeon has also argued against the use of testing at airports, saying it would not be enough to limit potential spread of the virus given the 14 day incubation period.

She said quarantine was the safest way to ensure people arriving from other countries would not pass on the virus to those in Scotland.

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