The UK’s main opposition Labour party has accused the government of failing to protect the public against Covid-19 after the home secretary admitted she had argued unsuccessfully to close the borders in March last year.
Priti Patel was recorded telling a Conservative Friends of India meeting on Zoom that she had been overruled at the start of the crisis. “Should we have closed our borders earlier? The answer is yes,” she said in comments leaked to the Guido Fawkes website. “I was an advocate of closing them last March.”
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, raised the issue at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, asking Boris Johnson: “Why did the prime minister overrule the home secretary?”
Mr Johnson replied that the UK had instituted “one of the toughest border regimes in the world” — a reference to a new system of compulsory testing that was not introduced until last weekend, 10 months into the pandemic.
The prime minister claimed that Labour had not backed the closure of borders last spring, adding: “I’m delighted that he now praises the home secretary, in a change of tune, and I’m delighted that he’s now in favour of tough border controls.”
The response of the Tory government to the worst pandemic in a century has been widely criticised given the UK has one of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the world.
In February and March 2020 the government had guidance for incomers from Iran, Italy and China’s Hubei province to self-isolate for 14 days after entering the country.
But on March 13 that rule was replaced with more general advice for all arrivals to self-isolate, but only if they developed symptoms of the deadly virus.
There was then a three-month delay before the government in June introduced quarantine rules for all arrivals. Ministers subsequently exempted certain countries from that quarantine through “travel corridors” from places with low infection rates.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow home secretary, said Ms Patel’s words were a “shocking admission from the home secretary about the government’s failure to secure the UK’s borders against Covid.
“Priti Patel’s admission, coupled with the complete lack of strategy for testing of travellers, means that the government has left our doors open to the virus and worrying mutations,” he said.
The Financial Times reported in April last year that there were major cabinet splits over border restrictions with Ms Patel arguing for tougher controls at a March cabinet meeting — while her demand was blocked by transport secretary Grant Shapps. At that time 90 per cent of the world was living in countries with travel restrictions.
Mr Shapps argued at the meeting that continuing flights was essential for repatriating UK citizens stuck abroad during the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. There were also concerns about the potential impact of tighter border controls on lorries making the Dover-Calais trade crossing.
At the time, other ministers were also sceptical of tighter border restrictions — including international trade secretary Liz Truss, who was “against it due to concerns about trade”.
The House of Commons home affairs select committee has been raising questions for months with the Home Office about the decision not to have stricter border measures in place — allowing up to 10,000 people into the UK with Covid-19 in March.
“We repeatedly asked to see the scientific evidence behind the government’s damaging decision on 13th March to lift all self-isolation advice for travellers at the same time that other countries were introducing stronger quarantine requirements, but ministers have never published it and we ended up concluding it did not exist,” said Yvette Cooper, the committee chair.
“It is still inexplicable that the UK’s approach to public health border measures has been so much weaker than elsewhere.”