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Earlier travel ban ‘would have saved lives’ – study


Tests have been available at airports

Startling new evidence has emerged that travellers from European countries were responsible for a surge in Covid cases in Scotland at the beginning of the pandemic – and that an earlier lockdown might have prevented the virus from escalating.

The new research comes as travellers face tough new restrictions requiring all those arriving into Scotland and England from overseas to test negative for Covid-19 test before they are allowed in.

They will be forced to take the pre-departure test (PDT) up to 72 hours before leaving the country they are in. Those coming from countries not on the quarantine exemption list will still be required to self-isolate for 10 days on arrival.

The latest clampdown was announced as research, led by the University of Glasgow and published in Nature Microbiology, confirmed that Sars-Cov-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, was introduced hundreds of times during the first four weeks of the outbreak in Scotland, mainly from other European countries, such as Italy and Spain.

Despite travel restrictions to mainland China coming into place at the end of January, the study shows that cases directly linked to Southeast Asia were rare in Scotland.

Senior author, Emma Thomson, Professor of Infectious Diseases at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, said: “Our study confirms Sars-Cov-2 entered the Scottish population through at least 283 separate travel-related introductions, leading to multiple clusters of sustained community transmission.

An earlier lockdown from countries with a high burden of cases, such as Italy, and other measures such as quarantine of travellers from high-risk areas, might have prevented escalation of the outbreak

– Emma Thomson, Glasgow University

“The emergence of continental Europe as the epicentre of the global COVID pandemic was a clear driver of the Scottish outbreak, with the majority of the lineages detected in this study related to European sequences. Cases with links to China and other countries in South-East Asia were comparatively not detected.

“The speed at which the virus took hold in Scotland and the UK as a whole, following multiple introductions, mainly from other European countries, was extremely rapid.

“It is possible an earlier lockdown from countries with a high burden of cases, such as Italy, and other measures such as quarantine of travellers from high-risk areas, might have prevented escalation of the outbreak and multiple clusters of ongoing community transmission.”

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The Scottish Government said the pre-departure test (PDT) will be introduced “as soon as practically possible”. England is expected to roll-out the new measures next week.

Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said: “Travel into or out of Scotland is currently illegal and that will remain the case while we work to suppress the new strain of COVID-19.

“The Scottish Government has been consistently clear about the risks associated with international travel and the importance of public health measures in helping to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“That is why we have been in regular dialogue with the UK Government and the other devolved administrations about what further measures can be put in place, including the introduction of pre-departure testing (PDT).

“The requirement for pre-departure testing will add to our suite of public health measures as we seek to help drive down transmission of the virus to safeguard health, protect the NHS and save lives.”

Mr Matheson said this additional measure does not remove the requirement for all passengers arriving from countries not on the quarantine exemption list to self-isolate for ten days, even with a negative test.  

Likewise, all passengers will continue to have to complete a Passenger Locator Form.

There have been calls from the aviation industry and from the Scottish Conservatives for testing at airports, and calls to strengthen border measures with pre-arrival testing which is already in place in many countries.

Some airlines are requesting passengers have proof of a negative Covid-19 PCR test ahead of travel.

Edinburgh Airport is among those which have introduced a Covid-19 drive-through screening service centre in front of the terminal to provide a fast and accurate PCR swab test with results emailed or texted to customers the next day.

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The new testing measures announced today had been expected after comments by UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove earlier this week.

Stewart Wingate, CEO, Gatwick Airport said: “We have long been an advocate of pre-departure testing and today’s Government announcement brings us in line with many other countries and closer to having a consistent, internationally coordinated pre-departure testing regime.”

UK Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps said: “We already have significant measures in place to prevent imported cases of COVID-19, but with new strains of the virus developing internationally we must take further precautions.

“Taken together with the existing mandatory self-isolation period for passengers returning from high-risk countries, pre-departure tests will provide a further line of defence – helping us control the virus as we roll out the vaccine at pace over the coming weeks.”


Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary,  said: “This is a necessary step, as it’s vital to do everything possible to control the spread of the virus and any further strains. 

“However, Labour has been calling for a comprehensive strategy on testing for international travel since April. Instead the Government has been lurching from one crisis to another. 

“In that time they have lost control of the virus and risked leaving the nation’s doors unlocked against the possibility of different strains of the virus entering the country from across the world.”

The testing plan was announced ahead of the latest research from scientists who have found evidence of transmission into Scotland through international travel, as early as February 2020.

Joss Croft, CEO, UKinbound, the travel trade association, said: “Testing pre-arrival is a very positive step forward and something that the industry have been asking for since the summer.

“However this mechanic alone will fall woefully short when it’s safe to travel again as no one will want to come to the UK if they have to isolate for a minimum of five days.

“Under this new policy, arrivals from non-travel corridor countries still have to quarantine or isolate, an issue that could be eradicated by implementing a second test on arrival.

“For travel to recover we also need a common international standard of testing, and we ask ministers to work towards this.

Jacqueline Dobson

Jacqueline Dobson: measures must be temporary

“Inbound tourism will be vital to the UK’s economic recovery, but today businesses in this industry are struggling to survive as they continue to be excluded from key support measures. The Government needs to stop turning a blind eye, act now and actually listen to the inbound tourism industry.”

Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel, said: “These strict measures, which will make travel virtually impossible, must only be temporary and only running as an emergency measure in tandem with the full national lockdown. 

“During this time, the governments must lay out a detailed roadmap to recovery for reopening international travel. This includes setting out plans for practical and affordable airport testing to work towards removing the need for quarantine.

“Testing affordability will be crucial for the leisure market to begin to make any form of recovery this year.”

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