Priti Patel says it was ‘absolutely right’ to wait until June to bring in coronavirus quarantine in committee clash with Yvette Cooper
The Home Secretary sparred with Labour’s Yvette Cooper over quarantine. (PA)
Priti Patel has said it was “absolutely right” for the Government to wait until June to bring in quarantine measures for all international arrivals to the UK.
The Home Secretary defended the 14-day self-isolation policy in a stormy Home Affairs Committee questioning session led by Labour’s Yvette Cooper.
Ms Patel said “hindsight is a wonderful thing” but that her department had been following the advice of scientific advisers in continuing to allow travel to the country in the early stages of the pandemic.
Under the rules, which were eased for some countries last Friday, people arriving in the UK must self-isolate for 14 days or face a fine of between £100 and £1,000.
But the measures have drawn criticism from some Conservative MPs for their impact on an already hard-hit aviation sector, and Ms Cooper asked whether they had been brought in too late to make an impact.
The senior Labour MP, who chairs the committee, said: “Scientists are now saying that between 1,300 and 10,000 cases of coronavirus came into the country, mainly from Spain and Italy in March during that period where you weren't asking how many people were coming and during that period where you didn't have any quarantine arrangements in place, and are also saying that those figures hugely sped up the epidemic.
“Do you now regret not having quarantine arrangements in place in March?”
But Ms Patel shot back: “First of all, I did ask questions and I did have numbers as did everybody in government.
“And secondly, in terms of the measures that were being put in place at the border, we were following the advice and rightfully so from government advisors.”
The Home Secretary added: “It was deemed back in March, in particular, if you recall, on the 13th of March, that the stay-at-home guidance was more effective than previously-issued country specific advice.”
Pressed again on whether she regretted not bringing in the measures sooner, Ms Patel said: “Now, hindsight is a wonderful thing. But we were following the advice at the time and I think that is absolutely the right thing to do.
“And that wasn't just from the home office's perspective, this was cross-government, in consultation with not just [scientific advisory group] Sage but the Department of Transport, the Department of Health, and every other government department.”
'FIGURE HELD CENTRALLY'
The pair — who have previously traded blows over the Government’s coronavirus response in a series of letters — also clashed over the Government’s current estimates for the numbers of people coming into the UK with Covid-19.
The Home Secretary said: “That I don't know. On a daily basis, the number of people coming into the country is approximately 50,000 people, and that's across all modes of transport.
“I don't have a figure of people coming into the country on a daily basis with coronavirus. That figure is held centrally elsewhere in government with the Department of Health and Public Health England.”
Pressed for an estimate on the number of people with coronavirus entering the country, Ms Patel told the committee chair there was “no point asking” if “hypothetical figures are accurate”.
“Back in March, and rightly so, because the priority back then was to do exactly what we said we would do which is to protect the NHS and stop the NHS from really suffering difficulties, we were asking very clear questions about the number of people that were travelling into the country that could, or did have coronavirus,” the Home Secretary said.
But she said government advisors had told her in March: "The figure that I was given was 0.5% of people basically who will potentially bring in cases from outside of the UK into the UK."
In a follow-up letter sent to the Committee on Wednesday night, the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser John Aston said any estimates of the number of people coming into the UK with Covid-19 would be “highly uncertain” because of the “number and nature of the assumptions that would need to be made”.
But he confirmed that the Government’s scientific advisory group Sage had advised the Home Office in March, months before quarantine was introduced, that the “numbers of cases arriving from other countries were estimated to be insignificant in comparison with domestic cases” — making up just 0.5% of total UK cases.
QUARANTINE LIST IS 'CROSS-GOVERNMENT' CALL
Ms Patel told the committee that she did not have a “generic figure” on the number of spot checks carried out by Public Health England officials on those who had been asked to self-isolate at the border.
Elsewhere Ms Patel was pressed on whether Spain, which will see its UK travel quarantine restrictions eased on Friday, could see itself placed back on the list of countries with extra measures amid a rise in cases in Barcelona.
Ms Cooper asked: “If those cases keep rising what is the threshold at which you would put Spain back on the quarantine list?”
But the Home Secretary said: “Well, I would not be involved in putting a threshold, or putting Spain back on the quarantine list. As you will know, chair, that is a cross-government decision.
“That would be led by the Department of Health and Public Health England.”