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A Tory Backlash Is Brewing Over 10-Year Jail Sentences For Quarantine Avoidance

4 min read

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has insisted the public wants "very stiff penalties" for people not following quarantine rules after senior Conservatives publicly criticised the government's threat of 10 year jail sentences.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday announced the lengthy jail term could be imposed on anyone returning to the UK who "tries to conceal" that they had been somewhere on the government's "red list" of 33 countries where new strains of Covid-19 are prevanent. 

The strict new measure, which will take effect on Monday, is part of a package of border restrictions designed to reduce the risk of a new variant of the coronavirus being imported.

The eye-catching prison sentence, which according to ITV is comparable to terms dished out for firearms offences, cruelty to children, and intent to kill,  has caused consternation among Conservative MPs and senior party figures, who have said it is disproportionate punishment.

Senior backbencher Steve Baker in a tweet said he "would really implore ministers to take stock" of the policy and that "at some point we are going to have to see reason and let temperance reassert itself”.

Mark Harper, who leads the COVID Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, told The Times he was concerned that the stringent border rules could be in place “for ever” if the virus, as ministers and scientists expect, continues to mutate.

Two former Conservative Attorney Generals complained that the maximum sentence was too high.

Dominic Grieve said the 10-year sentence “for what is effectively a regulatory breach sounds in the circumstances, unless it can be justified, extraordinarily high", while Geoffrey Cox argued "I get that the Secretary of State wants to show that this is serious, but you do have to have regard to the overall balance of sentencing policy and law," in comments reported by The Telegraph.

But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the policy. On Wednesday morning he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that it was "important to have very stiff penalties".

He said: “I do think that since the upshot of bringing a mutation that we weren’t able to deal with — and of course, we do think we will have all the measures through vaccination — if that did happen, then of course you would ultimately be responsible potentially for impacting a lot of peoples’ lives or indeed losing a lot of peoples’ lives. 

"I think it is important to have very stiff penalties in place, fines of up to £10,000 and potentially prison sentences. You would have to have deliberately gone out of your way to mislead and lie about it in order to get anywhere near that”.He suggested that the public would support a maximum sentence of 10 years for returning travellers who lie about where they have been.

“So many people have sacrificed so much," Shapps said.

"I don’t know a single family – mine included – who haven’t sacrificed, lost people, so I think the public actually feels that having done all of that, having rolled out this vaccine… why are this stage would we want to trip at the last hurdle, end up with a variant that for whatever reason we might struggle to deal with?”

As well as the risk of a jail term for not following quarantine rules, Brits who return to the UK having visited countries on the red list will be fined up to £10,000 if they fail to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days at a cost of £1,750, Hancock told MPs yesterday.

Hancock also confirmed that travellers returning from countries not on the government's red list will now require three tests. In addition to the one required 72 hours before arrival in the UK, travellers will now need to take another two tests during the 10-day self-isolation.

The Cabinet minister warned that "people who flout these rules are putting us all at risk".

He told the House of Commons: "Passenger carriers will have a duty in law to make sure that passengers have signed up for these new arrangements before they travel, and will be fined if they don't, and we will be putting in place tough fines for people who don't comply".

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