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9 February 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 12:51pm

Will Matt Hancock’s new quarantine testing plan fix the problem?

A mass testing scheme for foreign arrivals will improve, but not resolve, the issue of people failing to self-isolate. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has announced a new system of mass testing for passengers arriving into the UK this morning, as well as providing more details about the government’s hotel quarantine plans (which begin for arrivals from 33 “red list” countries on 15 February).

[See also: Why long-term Covid could mean long-term Conservative rule]

Speaking in the House of Commons, Hancock said that all passengers arriving in the UK will be tested for coronavirus on day two and day eight of their isolation, at their own expense – regardless of the country they have come from and whether they are at home or in hotel quarantine. 

At the moment, all arrivals into the UK are required to produce a negative Covid test 72 hours or less before flying, and then must self-isolate for ten days in their own homes. The compulsory tests on days two and eight should go some way to making this a more effective policy: once people test positive, they will have a further nudge actually to stick to their isolation, knowing they could pass the virus on, and the positive test would then require them to isolate for a full 14 day period, rather than the ten day period mandated by the current policy, which means untested people can leave self-isolation at a point where they could still be carrying the virus. The cost of three private tests might also deter people from travelling in the first place; a situation the government feels conflicted about due to economic considerations, but a positive behavioural impact from a virus-containment perspective. 

[See also: Why we shouldn’t worry about vaccine passports]

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But the positive test and the legal requirement aren’t enough. Four per cent of people who have actually tested positive for coronavirus, whether arriving from abroad or not, still go to work. This is, granted, half as many as the 8 per cent of those in insecure work who have gone to work with covid symptoms, but not necessarily with a Covid test result. But until people with coronavirus are given sufficient financial support to stay at home for 14 days, increased testing will help, yes, but the data suggests it won’t be enough on its own. 

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[See also: How Covid-19 has sparked a youth unemployment crisis]