The Government Must Take Stronger Action On Borders To Protect Us From New Covid Variants
The government’s Covid border policy isn’t working. Rightly ministers said they wanted to prevent the new South Africa variant taking hold in the UK and threatening to undermine our vaccine programme.
But it is already spreading across the country and there are real concerns about the Brazil variant too. We all badly need vaccines to succeed, so we need to be vigilant against any strain that might destabilise things. Yet there are too many delays and too many holes in the Government’s approach. Ministers urgently need to learn lessons from other countries and from what we got wrong in the first wave, and they must tighten up border policy before it is too late.
For a start, we cannot afford more delays. Pre-travel tests are finally in place but that didn’t happen until four weeks after the South Africa variant was discovered and many months after other countries did the same. There is still no timetable for quarantine hotels, and major hotel chains say they haven’t yet been contacted. That means that months after risky new variants were identified, people can still travel home on indirect flights from South Africa or Brazil, not be tested on arrival at Heathrow and head straight onto the tube.
Nor can we afford as many holes in the system. The focus too often is on a small number of hotspot countries. Initially ministers only targeted direct flights from South Africa. Yet we know from the first wave that direct flights from virus hotspots aren’t always the biggest problem with a fast spreading virus. Last spring 0.1% of cases came to the UK from China, but 62% came from France and Spain for which we had no restrictions in place at all.
Even once quarantine hotels are in place, they won’t cover the vast majority of passengers and the system for everyone else is still too weak. No one is tested on arrival even though passengers could have been on long, crowded journeys to the airport or in busy departure halls since their last test was done. And everyone can go straight onto public transport home - getting onto the tube, bus or train with key workers.
As for enforcement, only a minority of cases are ever followed up. Border Force have only been checking a quarter of forms at the airport. Less than 10% of passengers have even had a phone call when they get home. In the tiny minority of cases where physical checks are done, incredibly there is no system for enforcement if the police find no one is home. Of the 11,000 home checks the police were asked to do last year, in 1800 of them there was either no one home or no one of that name resident. The police took no further action in any of those cases. The Government is right that enforcement must be increased, but even with their new targets it looks like three quarters of passengers still won’t even get a phone call to ask if they are home.
The Prime Minister says we have one of the “toughest border regimes in the world.” It isn’t true and saying it doesn’t make it so. Those countries that have controlled Covid best are the ones that took strong early action at the borders. Look at Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan and more. Their schools, shops, businesses, bars, cafes and sporting events are all open, while we struggle with our third difficult lockdown. If we are serious about stopping risky new variants from taking hold, we should be learning from the things they did to stop the first wave of Covid last year.
There are two approaches the Government could take to strengthen the system. Follow the Australia and New Zealand approach with comprehensive quarantine hotels and testing. Or follow the South Korea approach with additional testing on arrival and a combination of quarantine hotels, quarantine taxis to avoid public transport and a much more rigorous system of home quarantine. Alongside this, put in place proper support for the travel industry until things improve. All those countries continue to manage global trade at the same time as having proper public health safeguards in place. We should be able to as well.
From the start of this crisis the Government has got its Covid border strategy wrong, even when the evidence has been clear. In part this seems to be the Prime Minister’s inability to take difficult decisions or to admit to the British public that holidays abroad may be hard for some time. But that’s not leadership. He should level with people. Most of us would rather have early action at the borders to get our schools, pubs and businesses back open.
I think it’s also because no one is in charge of this policy. The Home Office, Transport Department and Health Department pass it round like a hot potato with no one taking full responsibility, no one probing the detail and no one getting a grip.
We are all rooting for our vaccine roll out to succeed, so we can get things back open and see friends and family again, but that means we need to face up to the action needed to protect it from new strains - action we should have taken the first time round.
South Korea has lost 1400 people to Covid-19. Here in the UK we have lost 100,000 lives. If we had our time again, and we had the chance to take much stronger border action in the first wave in order to save lives and keep our economy and communities open, we would have done so in an instant. So please, let’s learn those lessons as we deal with new variants now.