Learning lessons from the recent Omicron Travel Restrictions

20 December 2021

The SMP recognises and respects that the first duty of any government is to protect its citizens and, in a fast-moving pandemic, it is right that a range of normally unacceptable measures -including travel restrictions and enforced quarantines- should be considered.

However, we also recognise that there is strong frustration both in Malawi and amongst Scots affected by the recent decision to Red List Malawi and ten other sub-Saharan African countries in response to the new Omicron variant. Many, including the President of Malawi, have made strong criticism of countries which seem to have singled out some of the poorest countries in the world in this instance. The SMP has received strong concerns from its members, those in the diaspora, our partners in Malawi, and a serving Malawi Cabinet Minister.

As of, 14th December, Malawi is no longer on the UK Red List and those arriving from Malawi do not have to quarantine.

This webpage highlights the issues and frustrations caused by the Red List decision for a number of our members and shares the response we have received from the Scottish Government when we represented these concerns. We recognise travel restriction decisions are made on a four-nations basis and we commend the Scottish Government for being alert and responsive to the concerns we have communicated. We hope the experience of this instance feeds into future decision making.

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The experience of our Members

By way of just one example, our own Finance Officer, volunteering his time for one of our small charity members, and at significant personal cost, travelled to Malawi in November on a much-postponed trip. While in Malawi, he learned of the UK’s decision to Red List the country and that he was required to quarantine for 12 days (ten full days, exclusive of the date you arrive and leave), despite Malawi having no reported cases of Omicron. To avoid having to quarantine over Christmas, he changed his flights to return as early as possible, at a cost of c£700. He then had to pay a further £2,300 for his quarantine in Edinburgh Airport and spent much of this time watching media reports clearly showing community transmission in Scotland. He had three PCR tests, all negative, and completed his 12 days quarantine on the same day he, and all others, were released as the policy had been changed.

A number of our members have been through similar ordeals and we know some are still stuck in Malawi having been unable to return when planned as they could not afford the cost of quarantine. We understand one Edinburgh quarantine guard commented that many of those quarantining in Edinburgh were volunteers in small charities working in Malawi. There have been various national and local media reports about our members affected:

Representing these concerns

The SMP exists to coordinate, represent and support Scotland’s links with Malawi. On this issue we have worked to help represent the frustrations we have received by collating and sharing information with the Scottish Government about the human, economic, development and diplomatic impact of such decisions. We have also discussed the matter with the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, Ms Jenny Gilruth MSP.

Commendably, the Scottish Government has responded quickly and thoroughly to these concerns, giving a full written response to all questions asked and committing to “review travel restrictions, in particular the proportionality and effectiveness of border health measures including Managed Quarantine hotels”. We are assured by the Scottish Government that “Scotland is an outward-looking, international country and we do not want travel restrictions to be in place any longer than is absolutely necessary.”

Scottish Government response in full

In keeping with our commitment to transparency and to help support future learning from this instance, we share here the official response we have received from the Scottish Government.

We are keen to put on record our thanks to the Scottish Government for being alert and responsive to the concerns and frustrations we have communicated from members. We appreciate that these decisions are made on a UK-wide, four-nations basis, and we are grateful to the Scottish Government for committing to feed in the experience of our members to future decision-making in this area.

Full official response from the Scottish Government

  • “Thank you very much for your correspondence … regarding travel restrictions.

    “I understand that the Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development recently met with the Scotland Malawi Partnership and that this issue was raised.

    “Firstly, I would like to re-emphasise that Scotland’s relationship with Malawi remains a priority. The Scottish Government is committed to working with Malawi on COVID-19 and support provided by the Scottish Government to Malawi to date includes funding for oxygen, PPE, vaccine preparedness, renewable energy at health centres, and genomic sequencing. I am sorry to read of the issues you have reported, and would like to formally acknowledge that the Travel Restrictions team in the Scottish Government and External Affairs colleagues recognise and note the issues the red list decision has caused. As you will be aware, travel restrictions in response to the new Omicron variant have changed once more since your email, but I would still like to take the opportunity to set out the background to our response to Omicron and outline how a similar situation may be handled in the future.

    “As with many other countries, importation of COVID-19 and in particular variants of concern, remains one of the biggest risks to public health in Scotland. Although travel restrictions can regrettably cause a number of other issues as reflected in your letter, they may be necessary to manage these risks. These difficult decisions are taken, where at all possible, on a four nation basis with the UK Government and the other devolved administrations. Although they are reviewed every three weeks, decisions sometimes have to be taken at short notice if required. These decisions are always informed by clinical advice and based on analysis of epidemiology across the globe. In addition to public health, Ministers also consider the other impacts of the pandemic and our response, including social and economic implications. I am sure you will appreciate that these decisions are therefore not taken lightly, and are considered necessary and proportionate despite these other impacts.

    “The Scottish Government has maintained a cautious position in our communications regarding international travel. We have consistently advised people to think very carefully before planning travel abroad or trips to Scotland as the public health situation can still change drastically and measures may have to be introduced at short notice. We must learn from previous experience, such as the Delta variant, where delayed global action resulted in the rapid transmission and prevalence of that variant not only in the UK, but now across the globe.

    “The epidemiology of the emerging Omicron variant showed concerning characteristics in South Africa, such as the reduced efficacy of vaccines and far higher transmissibility rates. As restrictions were gradually relaxed over the course of the year, contingency measures were retained for this very situation which would necessitate quickly reinstating the red list procedures including Managed Quarantine hotels. It soon became apparent that this variant was already well-established within Scotland and across the UK, which is why it was considered disproportionate from a public health point of view to keep these countries on the red list.

    “It is unfortunate that this variant happened to be identified in the south of Africa and I sympathise greatly with your reports of how it has affected individuals in both Malawi and Scotland. We will continue to learn and review steps taken alongside the other parts of the UK involved in these decisions. I am pleased to be able to reassure you that there is currently work underway across the board to review travel restrictions, in particular the proportionality and effectiveness of border health measures including Managed Quarantine hotels. Scotland is an outward-looking, international country and we do not want travel restrictions to be in place any longer than is absolutely necessary. I hope in future, as the world continues to respond to the pandemic, that measures can be relaxed further, enabling links with Malawi and other partners to strengthen and prosper.

    Thank you once again for taking the time to get in touch. I hope this response helps to provide further background on the situation and reassure you that we will take on board the constructive feedback now and in the future.”

Questions asked by those affected

The SMP passed on three key questions it received from members caught up in this issue, to the Scottish Government. Again, we thank the Scottish Government for their quick and full consideration of these questions, and for being able to share here the responses given in full.

  • Question 1: Why am I, with a negative PCR test result, in compulsory quarantine when the only people in Scotland who definitely have the Omicron variant are isolating at home? It seems they can be trusted and I cannot.
  • Answer 1: Red list measures including managed quarantine are necessary to limit and slow importation of the virus and variants of concern. Countries were added to the red list when we became aware of the Omicron variant. The measures were removed when it was clear that community transmission of the variant was already well-established within Scotland, as they were no longer considered proportionate.
  • Question 2: I have had to pay £2300 (personally) for the privilege of being held in a prison (I have a guard outside my door; I get accompanied at all times to exercise in the yard; and I cannot have visitors). Holiday Inn Express rooms are £60 per night so for 10 nights, that is £600. Even allowing for food costs, it wouldn't exceed £900. Who is profiting from this? It seems to be a money-making scheme for the Scottish Government.
  • Answer 2: The contracts for the Managed Quarantine service are held by the UK Government, and the costs cover not only hotel accommodation, but also testing, transport provision, and security. The Scottish Government makes no profit from the service. Some individuals may be eligible for financial assistance depending on their circumstances. Further information can be found here: Coronavirus (COVID-19): international travel and quarantine - gov.scot (www.gov.scot)
    Red list measures remain under review and we will continue to retain border measures proportionate to the risks associated with importation of the virus and variants of concern.
  • Question 3: I was in Malawi continuing the charity work I have done there for the last 10 years www.malawifruits.org.uk The Scottish Government also invests in development work in Malawi which I applaud. However, why has Malawi been added to the red list with no scientific evidence (a move that the WHO has condemned)? The damage this has done to the fragile Malawi economy has undone at a stroke , everything that the the Scottish Government will have achieved in development terms this year.
  • Answer 3: The enclosed letter refers further on the regrettable decisions that had to be taken in the face of the Omicron variant, and I am sorry to hear of the impact this has had. The red list remains necessary to respond to developments that pose the highest risk to public health in Scotland, including new variants of concern. These decisions are, as always, informed by epidemiological analysis as well as clinical advice. The World Health Organisation designated Omicron as a Variant of Concern before Malawi was added to the Red list.