Tougher border controls are welcome, but hotel quarantine should apply to all travellers - not just those from ‘red list’ countries
Introducing tougher restrictions at borders and introducing hotel quarantine is key to controlling the virus, writes Munira Wilson MP. | PA Images
I have little doubt that had the UK followed other countries in enforcing a strict border policy early at the start of the pandemic, the death toll would be far lower than it is now.
How many deaths could have been prevented had much stricter public health measures been put in place at our borders last March?
I put this to Matt Hancock in the Commons this week. He avoided giving me an honest answer and didn’t even try to give me a clear defence of the government’s strategy.
Boris Johnson also claimed earlier this year that he and his government “did everything we could” to save lives. I find this hard to believe, especially given latest ONS estimates suggest over 125,000 people have now died of coronavirus in the UK, and the death toll continues to rise. Even if the Prime Minister does honestly believe that his government handled Covid as well as it could, then do they believe they have nothing to learn?
It is clear from other countries that there is plenty to learn, no matter what the PM says. It has been obvious for some time what works when tackling a highly infectious and deadly virus. Lock down fast to get numbers under control, accompanied by strict public health measures at borders including testing and quarantining to limit importing new cases. Crucially, testing and tracing every case we find of coronavirus, and providing adequate financial as well as practical support to all those who need to self-isolate, so we can break the chains of transmission. The UK should be constantly learning from countries that have shown these approaches which, if put in place early, save lives and livelihoods.
Over the course of the pandemic the government has been slow and reluctant to take swift and decisive action, so not only do we get the adverse impacts of lockdowns and restrictions, we also don’t get the full public health benefit of them either, and the economy takes an even bigger hit.
Every time experts and opposition MPs have called for increased border controls, the government has given poor excuses. In March they downplayed the severity of the virus, taking a devil may care attitude to Covid and pursuing a herd immunity approach. By the time the virus was ripping through the country the government said the virus was so prevalent that there was little point introducing any kind of hotel quarantine at airports. Had we done so, we might have mitigated the spread of new variants, including the South African variant, which is raising so many concerning questions.
Proper and rigorous controls at borders buy us time to roll out the vaccine and fix test and trace so that we can get this pandemic under control
As a liberal country we rightly pride ourselves on our defence of personal liberties and civil rights. We reasonably question any decision by the government to restrict these freedoms. But being liberal isn’t incompatible with stringent measures to slow the spread of a deadly new disease. Taiwan is a thriving liberal democracy with a liberal government and took early robust action. They went as far as closing their borders and they put in place a generous support package for those required to self-isolate. As a result of their rapid action, Taiwan has only had 9 deaths from Covid since the beginning of the pandemic and their economy is growing.
They’re not the only ones to follow this strategy: Australia and New Zealand, again, both successful liberal democracies have controlled their borders and both have a hotel quarantine system in place. The government should have learnt from their response early on and I have little doubt that had the UK followed the example of Taiwan and others the death toll would be far lower than it is now.
We must hope that the government is now finally learning from past mistakes. Many of us have known for a long time that introducing tougher restrictions at borders and introducing hotel quarantine is key to controlling the virus. After a year of delay, the latest announcement is welcome, though quarantine needs to apply to all travellers to the UK, not just from so called ‘red list’ countries where there is a high prevalence of new variants. These measures need to be accompanied by a sector-specific package of support for the travel and aviation industry, with clear environmental conditions attached.
Proper and rigorous controls at borders buy us time to roll out the vaccine and fix test and trace so that we can get this pandemic under control.
Munira Wilson is the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for health and social care.