The Government were warned they risked importing a new Covid variant – and that's exactly what's happened
Watching the Prime Minister tell the country that hopes of reopening could be put at risk as a result of a new variant from overseas was the news we have been dreading.
In a pandemic many things are hard to anticipate, but what has made me so angry is that this outbreak was entirely foreseeable.
The Labour Party has warned time and time again that the UK government was running the risk of importing a dangerous new variant of Covid as a result of a wholly inadequate border policy. That’s exactly what’s come to pass with the variant that originally appeared in India.
Hotel quarantining was not introduced until February, and then it was half-baked. Ministers have allowed thousands of people to enter the country every day with only around 1% staying in hotels. What makes it worse is that they knew the home quarantine system, itself belatedly introduced in June last year, was not working. Their own figures showed that only three in every 100 people who were supposed to be in quarantine were being successfully contacted.
Labour has called for tougher measures at the border for months, including a comprehensive hotel quarantining system. Back in February, we forced a vote in Parliament on this very issue, which would have meant people arriving in the UK from anywhere world would have been required to undertake hotel quarantine. This would have been the best way to keep new variants out, yet Conservative MPs refused to back the measure.
Little wonder that we already had community outbreaks of strains that emerged in South Africa and Brazil. Now we are facing the prospect of catastrophic damage being done by this new strain. SAGE scientific advice suggests it could be up to 50% more transmissible than even the Kent variant. This could create huge health pressures, whilst delaying reopening will be damaging for so many businesses who are working so hard to reopen. It would also be heart-breaking for people across the country, so desperate to get back to their normal lives.
We have the prize of greater freedoms in sight, won through the sacrifices of the British people, our brilliant scientists who discovered the vaccine, and the huge efforts of the NHS in the rollout. However, this could be massively set back by the recklessness of the Prime Minister. It beggars belief that the he did not even act to put India on the red list until well after the tragic outbreak there had taken hold, and 8 days after 77 cases were already detected in the UK.
It is vital that the advice of expert public health officials on the ground is followed, with ‘surge vaccinations’ in areas of prevalence, enhanced contact tracing and crucially, sick pay and isolation support must be fixed.
But, crucially, the UK government needs to rethink the further reopening of the borders planned next week, not least because Ministers have not even done the groundwork in developing an internationally recognised vaccine passport. With days to go until international travel resumes again, even with a traffic light system, there is a risk further variants could enter the UK
People have sacrificed so much and our frontline workers have given their all to offer us the hope of greater freedom. Ministers’ negligence is putting all this at risk. I hoped that Ministers would heed the warnings Labour continuously gave. They did not. That failure to act could have disastrous consequences. Ministers must act urgently to contain this outbreak, while pausing further international travel to avoid repeating this disastrous mistake. The British people deserve nothing less.