Coronavirus (COVID-19): international travel measures - statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

Parliamentary statement by Michael Matheson, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity given on 9 February 2021.

Presiding Officer, I would like to take this opportunity to update Parliament on the Scottish Government’s approach to international travel and border health measures.

I will set out more detail shortly, but I can confirm that from next Monday, 15 February, all international travellers arriving directly in Scotland by air will be subject to a requirement to enter managed isolation.

Before I do, I first want to provide the latest COVID statistics for Scotland which the First Minister announced earlier today. These help set the context for the action that we consider necessary on travel and border controls.

Yesterday, 822 positive cases were reported. This represents 7.2% of all tests that were carried out. There are 1,618 people in hospital, which is a decrease of 54 from yesterday. 112 people are in intensive care, four more than yesterday.

I am sorry to confirm that in the past 24 hours there were a further 58 deaths registered, of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days.  As a result there are now 6,501 deaths under that measurement.  I extend my sympathy and condolences to everyone who has lost a beloved member of their family, or friend.

These numbers are still much higher than we would like, but they show this wave of the pandemic starting to recede.

At the same time, vaccine deployment continues at pace.  We expect this week to exceed 1 million total vaccinations in Scotland. As of 8.30 this morning, 928,122 people in Scotland have received their first dose of the vaccine.

These encouraging signs help explain why, in the Scottish Government’s view, stronger restrictions on international travel are needed.

The COG-UK report, on genomic sequencing, shows the role that international travel played in the rise in cases last summer.

Around 40% of new lineages in Scotland identified in that analysis came directly from overseas through international travel. The rest came from elsewhere in the UK.

We also know the nature of the risk from international travel has now changed. We face a different challenge in variants of the coronavirus than we faced last year.

Two specific mutations give cause for concern – and this concern is increased because they have emerged repeatedly and independently in different parts of the world.

One mutation is believed to be associated with increased transmissibility – it makes it easier to spread the virus. 

The second mutation is believed to be associated with resistance to protective antibodies – so that if you have already had COVID-19 you could be at risk of reinfection from the variant. 

That could mean vaccines we are deploying may be less effective against these variants. 

The variant identified in South Africa has both mutations – as does a second variant found in Brazil.

It is vital that we do everything possible to prevent these variants entering Scotland and gaining a foothold. We cannot risk variants from international travel undermining deployment of vaccine.

Of course, case numbers still matter.  Our border health measures play an important role in suppressing new cases in Scotland.

But protecting the vaccines and helping us return to a greater degree of normality in our day-to-day lives, is now also a major part of the purpose of the international travel regulations.

The Scottish Government is clear that policy on international travel controls must be guided by the expert clinical advice. 

That advice is clear. We need a comprehensive approach to restricting international travel.

SAGE concluded in papers published just last week: “reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants.” They highlight “the lag between emergence and identification of variants of concern” as well as “the potential for indirect travel” to the UK via third countries.

Unfortunately, at the present moment, the UK Government continue to rely on a targeted reactive approach.

This has been what we, along with the other UK nations, have been doing up to now. That has led to additional restrictions on travel from areas at risk from the variants identified in South Africa and Brazil covering South America, large parts of Africa, and countries with close travel links to those regions.

It’s clear that approach is not sufficient alone any longer.  It depends on the ability of the Joint Biosecurity Centre to assess the risk of variants. 

The JBC will update us on countries subject to these measures next week.

But the key challenge is the availability of data to inform the JBC’s analysis. 

With very limited genome sequencing going on globally, data on new variants is unreliable. 

So it is very hard to say with confidence where the high risk countries are – even for the variants we know about. 

That is why the Scottish Government wants a comprehensive approach to managed isolation. 

So from Monday we will require all international travellers arriving directly on flights into Scotland to enter managed isolation. 

This goes further than the measures announced by the UK Health Secretary earlier this afternoon.

The UK Government has only committed to adopting this for travellers returning from “red list” countries.

We know that is not sufficient and we have gone further.

We believe that all international travellers, with some limited exemptions, should meet the requirement to isolate in a managed facility.

The Welsh First Minister has echoed that, arguing that anyone entering the UK should be expected to quarantine.

But our aim on international travel has always been to work on a four nation basis where possible. We are engaging with the UK and Welsh Governments, and Northern Ireland Executive, to agree a joint approach to contracting the transport and accommodation services required for managed isolation.

This will involve a common approach to procurement of hotels and related services, initially in England and in Scotland, based on a UK Government contract. This will have flexibility to respond to the different policy direction we are taking, and ensure all arrivals are required to enter quarantine here in Scotland.

Passengers flying to Scotland from overseas will be required to book and pay for mandatory isolation in a quarantine hotel through a common online portal. That system, operated by the UK Government, goes live on Thursday. We have identified six hotels close to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports with a combined capacity of 1,300 rooms. The cost to the first traveller in a room will be £1,750, with supplements for additional family members.

These costs will include a mandatory testing regime, and we will require all arrivals to be tested twice - on day two and day eight after arrival. 

At launch this will be through the UK testing programme with the intent to quickly move to private sector provision. However, there is currently capacity in the Lighthouse lab to meet the needs of the present travel levels.

We will develop a Managed Isolation Welfare Fund for travellers who may struggle to meet the charge.

We have been in touch with the airports. Transport Scotland officials briefed Edinburgh and AGS over the weekend, and the Connectivity Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, is discussing managed isolation with Scottish airports as I speak.

The number of travellers coming to Scotland directly is reducing, and I expect these restrictions to reduce arrivals further. There were approximately 1,600 in the last week of January, but that fell to only around 730 in the first week of February. But the number of people transiting via international hubs is greater.

Passengers entering England from the red-list countries who then seek to travel onto Scotland will have to isolate in a hotel in England. Last week, that was 130 people.

We continue to press the UK Government to adopt what we believe is a more comprehensive approach, and require all arrivals to go into a quarantine hotel.

We ask the UK Government to work with us to identify international travellers not caught by this approach so that arrangements can be made for them to isolate in a quarantine hotel, in line with the policy in Scotland.

These measures will be backed up with criminal offences as usual, that will add to the powers that enforcement bodies already have at their disposal, such as culpable and reckless conduct. 

We are working closely with Police Scotland, Border Force and other justice partners on implementing a range of offences and penalties to support the managed isolation policy and to aid compliance.

Of course, non-essential international travel is not allowed at present.

It is important that people adhere to these rules. We will continue to keep them under review and to consider whether there is more that we need to do to protect our communities from the risk of importation.

There will be some exemptions from the requirement to isolate in a managed facility. 

However, many exemptions will require travellers to self-isolate at home or their own accommodation. They will only be able to leave self-isolation for the essential work they are here to do.

A very small number of arrivals will be not be required to isolate, for example in essential supply chains for goods coming into Scotland, foreign diplomats and essential defence activities.

We are also tightening some of our existing exemptions further.  This will include limiting overseas training for elite sportspeople to athletes and coaches preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics.

Presiding Officer, the number of international travellers coming into Scotland has fallen significantly. Non-essential travel remains unlawful, and the majority of arrivals right now are required to self-isolate at home.

The stronger approach we are taking is necessary and proportionate. I expect tougher restrictions to lead to further reductions in travel numbers.

As Transport Secretary, I understand the impact these vital measures to protect Scotland from the virus will have on the aviation sector.

There is a role for the sector to play, and we will work closely with airlines and airports to ensure passengers are conveyed safely and securely at all stages of their journey.

We are supporting the sector, including by maintaining our package of Business Rates Relief for airports. But given the challenges that the aviation sector in Scotland is facing, I intend to build on our existing engagement and create an aviation working group.

It is important that this group meets the needs of the sector and we will therefore work with our industry stakeholders to refine its scope.

Presiding Officer, we have had to make many difficult decisions in the course of this pandemic. This is no different.

It is clear that to manage the risk of importing new variants, and to give vaccine deployment the best chance of bringing us closer to normality here in Scotland, we have to place further limits on international travel.

For these to be as effective as possible, I will continue to encourage UK Ministers to  match our ambition, and help us protect Scotland – and all of the UK.


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