Hotel Quarantine

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16th February 2021.

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Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government what arrangements are in place to ensure that passengers entering Scotland from non-red list countries via airports in England are quarantined in approved hotels. (S5T-02673)

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government’s policy on international travel is based on expert advice from the scientific advisory group for emergencies on the need for a comprehensive approach. Although we recognise that a four-nations approach would be preferable, the partial approach adopted by the United Kingdom Government risks allowing new variants to enter the country. Currently, anyone who lands at an airport elsewhere in the UK from a non-red list country and then travels to Scotland will not go into a quarantine hotel.

We will continue to press the UK Government to adopt a more comprehensive approach and to require all international travellers to go into a quarantine hotel. The measures that we have introduced are designed to safeguard communities in Scotland, and I again urge UK ministers to work with us on that important task.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

The cabinet secretary did not really address the specific question. There is a predictable loophole around passengers arriving in Scotland via English airports being asked to quarantine by the Scottish Government in managed hotels in England. When exactly did the cabinet secretary or other Scottish Government ministers make a formal request to the UK Government for that loophole to be closed?

In the absence of an agreement, the Scottish Government has said that it does not rule out closing the Scotland-England border. Twenty-two roads and two railways cross the border, and every day thousands of people travel across it, mainly from the south of Scotland to the north of England and back for work, healthcare and education. Can the cabinet secretary therefore enlighten us as to the Government’s thinking on how our already overstretched police can enforce the closure of the border to try to stop someone who landed at, say, Manchester airport without stopping everyone carrying out legitimate essential travel?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

In relation to Mr Smith’s first point, Jeane Freeman, the health secretary, the First Minister and I all engaged with UK ministers last week on the issue. We highlighted the need to make sure that robust action is taken in order to ensure that a comprehensive system of hotel quarantine is introduced across UK. We also highlighted that, in failing to do that and in following the red-list approach, which it is implementing, the UK Government risked leaving loopholes allowing people to circumvent the comprehensive system that we have introduced in Scotland. To date, I am still waiting for a formal response from the UK Government on that request, but we will continue to press it on the matter in order to try to address the loophole that its approach has created.

On Colin Smyth’s second question, he will recognise the importance of ensuring that we listen to the expert clinical advice on the most effective way in which to deal with the risk of new variants being introduced into the country. No one should be in any doubt that the most effective way of doing that is through a comprehensive quarantine system. That is why we are looking at other options to address the issue if the UK Government does not move in the direction of that clinical advice. I assure Mr Smyth that we are looking at all options to ensure that we minimise the potential risk of the introduction of new variants of Covid-19 into Scotland, which could compromise our vaccination programme.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

When the cabinet secretary announced the quarantine policy last week, he also said that there would be a managed isolation welfare fund for travellers who might struggle to meet the charges associated with quarantine—for example, for those for whom travel is essential on compassionate grounds. Can he tell us why that fund has not been set up and what families who face hardship should do when they need to travel on compassionate grounds?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

The arrangements for the welfare fund are in the online portal that is used when someone books their managed quarantine facility. If they are unable to meet the associated costs, rather than pay in advance, they can indicate that and their individual case is than assessed. The arrangements have therefore been put in place in the portal that has been created by the UK Government. However, if Colin Smyth has constituency cases that he is concerned about, he should feel free to send the details to me, and I will ensure that those individual cases are fully considered.

The Presiding Officer:

Six members want to ask supplementaries. It will be impossible to get through them all, I am afraid.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I a m glad to hear the cabinet secretary talk about individual cases. An elderly constituent of mine has been in the Canary Islands since last December. Through no fault of their own, flights have been repeatedly cancelled and they might overstay the 90-day residency rule for that part of Europe.

When my constituent eventually returns to Scotland, they will need to enter managed self-isolation in a hotel, which will be financially challenging. Can the cabinet secretary provide details of any hardship support or deferred payment schemes? Will those be exclusively for those who are on certain benefits, or will flexibility be shown?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

W hen someone goes on to the online portal looking to book their managed quarantine facility, there is an option to highlight that they might not be able to meet the up-front costs and to indicate why that is the case.

Presently, the policy is linked to benefits. However, I am, again, more than happy to listen to any individual constituency cases that Bob Doris may have.

I very much regret that we are having to introduce such a quarantine scheme. I assure members that the measures that we are introducing, whose purpose is to make sure that our borders are as robust as possible and deal with the threat of new variants, will be in place only for as long as is required and that we will look to lift them at the earliest opportunity. However, I reiterate that, at the present time, no one should be undertaking international travel unless it is absolutely essential. I encourage anyone who is considering travelling to avoid doing so if it is not essential.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I spoke this morning to a constituent who, along with her five-year-old daughter, is in Finland where her partner is receiving hyperbaric oxygen treatment following a severe brain injury. With school now about to restart for their five-year-old, the family wants to return to Scotland. However, they now face a 10-day period of hotel quarantine. In the circumstances, which includes coping with the side effects of a brain injury, such as seizures, and caring for a five-year-old, my constituent believes hotel quarantine to be practically impossible. What dispensations to the quarantine regulations can be made for the family, given their uniquely challenging situation?

The Presiding Officer:

I think that there was almost certainly too much howl around the audio feed for the cabinet secretary to hear that. Did you hear any of that question, Mr Matheson?

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

Yes, I think that I heard most of it, Presiding Officer.

I ask Mr Scott to write to me with the details. There are provisions in the exemptions for individuals who, for medical reasons, would be unable to stay in a managed quarantine facility. If he sends the details on to me, I will ensure that officials look into the issue for him.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

On the issue of vulnerable people who may be unable to afford the quarantine fee, yesterday I was contacted by the British Red Cross, which is concerned about the lack of guidance for people travelling to Scotland to reunite with loved ones on refugee family reunion visas, including unaccompanied refugee children. I note the cabinet secretary’s comments about the portal, but the British Red Cross would like to know when full and clearer guidance on the managed isolation welfare fund will be published.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party

I believe that the information that the British Red Cross is looking for was provided to it earlier today. It included the information that it may require about those who hold refugee status and the exemptions in the existing regime for dealing with such issues.

The Presiding Officer:

I apologise to the three members whom I was unable to call. I am conscious that we have a statement on Covid-19 from the First Minister coming up. It might be that they can rephrase their question in a way that can be put to the First Minister after her statement.