Yvette Cooper Calls Government A “Chaotic Mess” Over Delay In Demanding A Negative Covid Test At The UK Border
The requirement for a pre-flight negative Covid-19 test has been delayed until Monday (PA)
Yvette Cooper has said that hold-ups on the requirement for a negative Covid test before being admitted into the UK shows the government has “never had a proper effective system in place.”
The chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee said the decision to put back the policy until next week is the latest example of a “chaotic mess” created by various departments, who she believed have each passed the buck on responsibility for infection controls at the border throughout the pandemic.
Unions and industry bodies have also criticised the move, which transport secretary Grant Shapps said was necessary to "to give international arrivals time to prepare”.
But when the minister confirmed the postponement in a late-night Tweet yesterday, the guidance on the “specificity” and “sensitivity” required of the tests had still not been published.
Speaking to PoliticsHome Ms Cooper said: “I think this is truly shocking, other countries have had this in place for months, it's becoming an established part of international travel.
“Therefore it ought to be possible for the UK to get it in properly, ministers have been talking about it for several weeks, and so for them to fail to get the basic guidance in place is just shocking.
“And at a time when there needs to be proper testing in place to deal with these new variants, in order to protect the vaccine programme, I think this is just highly irresponsible.”
Travellers to the UK are already required to self-isolate upon arrival, but there has been strong criticism of how the system operates with little oversight here, especially compared with the measures in place in other countries, which include placing people in quarantined accommodation and applying more stringent background checks.
The Labour former Cabinet minister said the current problems go “back to the very start of the pandemic,” and accused the government of not learning lessons from their initial mistakes.
While flights from China and then Korea and Italy were initially banned early in 2020 that policy was then scrapped in March, as Ms Cooper explained: “And then it just lifted the lot. They had no self isolation guidance in place.
“No quarantine rules in place, no testing in place, there was nothing in place. And that ran from the 12th of March through until the 8th June. And that whole period, there was nothing in place.”
She added: “And when you'd ask, everybody effectively seemed to think it was somebody else's responsibility.
“So the Home Office were partly responsible but the transport department was partly responsible, they all kept saying 'well the health department's responsible, well, then it's a matter for the scientific experts'.
“Well, they then said then it's a policy decision. Number 10 had some role in it, but it was never clear who was responsible for putting in place a Covid measures at the border."
Her committee launched an inquiry into the situation last year, which she said concluded dealing with coronavirus arriving into the country was “never a central part of their strategy”.
“And then there was nobody clearly responsible for it,” Ms Cooper added.
“And the combination of those things meant that you just had this sort of chaotic mess.”
Since last June rules require travellers to fill out a form in advance of arriving in the UK, providing contact information, travel details and an address where they plan to self-isolate.
But yesterday giving evidence to MPs, the Immigration Services Union said they were set a target to check just 10% of passenger locator forms, so 90% are not even looked at to make sure they have provided correct contact details.
Lucy Moreton from the union, which represents border staff, said: “The check is very, very basic.
"Simply, has the form been completed, is the information contained in it vaguely plausible? So, unless it’s manifestly unreliable, we accept the data that’s put there at face value.”
She added: “We don’t check the addresses. Inherently, if they have not gone to the place they told us they were going to go, we’ve lost them. The UK is a very big place.
“Individuals can put whatever it is that they want into the passenger locator form, we don’t query that. They then get on to mass transport in order to enter into the UK.
“They can move around with very little enforcement.”
Ms Cooper said: “We asked the police whether they were doing much follow up work on cases being referred to them on quarantine checks.
“They have a limited number of cases referred to them but the chief constables couldn't even then explain what happens if you go and knock on a door and there's nobody in.
“They said ‘we refer it back to the Border Force’, and the Immigration Services Union said the Border Borce don't have any capacity to do further follow up.”
Meanwhile other countries have checked every passenger’s phone number before they leave the airport, with some like Singapore have made people download an app which monitors if they stick to quarantine.
Many have also been testing people at airports on arrival, before passengers are released into the community, which is how Japan picked up its first cases of the Brazilian variant.
There has also been criticism of allowing arrivals to use public transport to get to their destination, and Ms Cooper said there is little public health advice given to UK arrivals and officials “have no idea how many passengers actually read the information that's linked to the passenger locator form”.
She added: “Overall, they've just not taken seriously the impact of proper testing and quarantine measures have on responding to a pandemic, they've just never taken it seriously.”
This was echoed Manuel Cortes, general secretary of transport union the TSSA, who said: “It beggars belief that ten months since we first went into lockdown, our borders remain open to people who may be carrying the virus.”
He told PoliticsHome: “The Tories have spread loads of rhetoric in the recent past about taking back control of our borders - but the one time they should have definitely done so they have failed miserably.
“Entry into our country should be restricted to those who are Covid-free, no ifs, no buts and it is scandalous that this isn't yet the case.”
Unite union’s national officer for civil aviation Oliver Richardson said: "The implementation by government of policy in relation to passenger travel during the pandemic has been atrocious and this delay is further of proof of that.
"Testing, tracing and isolation upon entry and quarantining has been simply ineffectual. Ministers have failed to provide any infrastructure development, despite the industry requesting it time and again for the measures being introduced.
“Nor have they supported the industry from the impact of such measures. We therefore have the worst of both worlds where measures are not dealing with the spread of Covid-19 and the industry is being left to pick up the pieces of the consequential restrictions and suppression of travel demand."
And Joss Croft, chief exec of tourism trade association UK Inbound, said: “Testing pre-arrival is a very positive step forward and something that the industry has been asking for since the early summer, but the government has stumbled at the first hurdle, its implementation.
“This mechanic alone will also fall woefully short when it’s safe to travel again as no one will want to come to the UK if they have to isolate for a minimum of five days.
“For travel to recover we need a common international standard of testing, and we ask ministers to urgently work towards this.”
But Downing Street has defended the delay to enforcing the requirement for pre-departure coronavirus tests, with a spokesman saying: "We always said we'd introduce the regulations on Friday and the law is still coming into force on Friday.
"But we've implemented a grace period over the weekend until 4am on Monday so passengers can have a little bit more time to ensure they can get access to tests that meet our requirements."
Asked if the delay would allow more potential cases to enter the UK, he said: "It is important to remember this is alongside other measures we have in place."