Emergency measures are being brought into action throughout Europe as new cases of Coronavirus radiate throughout the globe. While it appears comparatively that the number of cases in the UK remains small, what can the authorities do legally to detain or isolate people with the virus?

Before turning to look at the UK legislation, people will be well aware of some practical, and perhaps frightening to some, steps being taken in other countries with the likes of cruise ships becoming floating isolation stations and hotels being locked by the police. Entire cities in China and now regions/towns in Northern Italy are also in lockdown. News coverage has also shown checkpoints in China turning people away and travellers in airports being checked for signs of the virus.

The UK position

Emergency regulations are already in place in England which allow people with suspected Coronavirus to be forcibly quarantined by a constable. Scotland is still to follow suit so until any emergency powers are enacted, it could be said that a court application is needed for a quarantine order. However, across all of the UK, Border Force officers can require an arriving passenger to submit to further examination by a medical inspector.

Medical examination at point of entry: pre existing powers

Under the Immigration Act, UK Border Force officers can "examine" any persons who have arrived in the United Kingdom to determine various immigration questions. An examination may be made by a medical inspector or by any qualified person carrying out a test or examination required by a medical inspector.

If the person who is examined is then given notice in writing, they can be required to submit to further examination (but that would not prevent them from leaving the UK if they are a transit passenger, crew member, etc).

Emergency powers: The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 are now in force. These apply to England only.

The powers are extensive. People can be detained and isolated if a public health consultant believes a person to be infected with Coronavirus, or that they came from one of the designated infected areas (Wuhan, Iran, parts of Italy, etc). "Any other restriction or requirement" can be put in place that is necessary and proportionate for reducing or removing the risk of spreading the infection. A constable may use reasonable force to detain a person who does not comply here.

Scottish Powers - existing legislation

Under the Public Health etc Scotland Act 2008, a judge in the Sheriff Court can make a quarantine order and a constable, health board officer, council officer, or any other person the judge considers appropriate can remove that person to quarantine. If an attempt is made to abscond there are powers to use reasonable force to detain a quarantined person in a hospital or any other place. In practice it is unlikely that this would be the route followed because the Scottish Ministers may make regulations (under s94) to give powers to "other persons" to examine, quarantine, and detain people arriving into Scotland. Although such regulations have not been made as of yet, they could be brought forward quickly if any existing powers needed bolstering.


The legal framework is already in place to enable isolation and, if necessary, detention of anyone suspected of carrying the virus. The hope remains that the enactment of broader emergency powers is not necessary in the UK and that the spread of the virus is contained.


Stephen Goldie

Managing Partner