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19 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 4:39am

If travel testing and self-isolation is working, why is the Indian variant in the UK?

Whether countries are red-listed or not, new variants should not be able to spread if the self-isolation system is functioning.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Politicians are offering two explanations for the presence and spread of the Indian variant in the UK.

Government ministers are blaming vaccine hesitancy – that some who are eligible for jabs who have not come forward. This is something of a distraction given that uptake has been unusually high relative to other countries and to other vaccination campaigns in the UK.

Labour is highlighting the time that elapsed before the government added India to the “red list” of countries from which travel is banned (other than for British and Irish arrivals, who have to quarantine in a hotel room for ten days). India was only put on the list on 23 April, three weeks after the government announced that neighbouring countries Pakistan and Bangladesh would be red-listed on 2 April, and even then travellers were given four days’ notice to return.

[See also: The spread of the Indian Covid variant has exposed the UK’s shortcomings]

Yet both these explanations ignore that even without the red list or pockets of vaccine hesitancy, the Indian variant should not have been able to spread in the community. Before the travel ban, arrivals from India had to self-isolate at home for ten days and only emerge after a negative test result. If this system worked as intended, then the variant – even if someone was carrying it – should not have been able to reach anyone else.

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There are two reasons why self-isolation isn’t working. The first is that financial support is difficult to access and restricted to a small number of people. Along with the low rate of statutory sick pay in the UK (£96.35 per week), this makes it difficult for people who cannot work from home to afford to take time off.

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[See also: The lack of self-isolation support remains a gaping hole in the UK’s Covid-19 response]

The second is that the tests required for release from self-isolation after travelling to the UK – run by private companies the government lists on its website – are expensive and fraught with delays, mistakes and general inefficiency. While investigating just a handful of these firms, I have uncovered instances of erroneous negative results, arrivals cooped up for as long as 16 days without their promised test kits or results, and people left out of pocket.

[See also: Missing kits, wrong results and high prices: The great Covid-19 travel test rip-off]

One such company, 001 Doctor, told me in an email in April that there is a “national shortage in test kits from approved government labs, which have caused significantly reduced supply for all private suppliers”, affecting the “vast majority of private providers”. The phrase “approved government labs” refers to the partner labs used by private providers of Covid tests; the government does not run these operations, but does list private providers on its website as approved for public use.

The company added: “The delivery channels for Covid test samples have been choked by the volume of tests and also by the recent holiday period causing them delays in delivering the kits we have sent and… kits going back to the labs.”

This is the same company that sent a batch of erroneous negative tests to customers on 14 April. Its partner lab, which made the error, cited “overwhelming demand”.

If demand was this high and test kits were so scarce in April, before foreign holidays were allowed, then chaos could result after the return of overseas travel this week.

The New Statesman understands that the government monitors travel demand, private sector testing capacity, and the quality of private providers’ delivery and testing services. If these companies deliver an inadequate service, they are supposed to receive a five-day warning from the government after which they are removed from the gov.uk travel test list if they cannot demonstrate that they have rectified their service.

Yet five days is a long time, considering the urgency of customers receiving their tests and results on time. The onus appears to be on the individual traveller to pick the right service. Despite its role in monitoring and listing providers, the government warns visitors to its website that “you should do your own research about them and their terms and conditions”.

“There are no issues with private provider capacity or supplies of the day two and day eight tests for international arrivals,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care. “The government does not endorse or recommend any particular test provider for quarantine test packages and we carefully monitor all issues raised by the public about travel test providers and take action wherever appropriate, including removing providers from the list.

“Tests and providers are both rigorously reviewed by the independent United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) and the list of private travel test suppliers is continually updated to ensure that the providers listed meet the required standards.”