BORIS Johnson has been accused of “incompetence” and risking UK safety after it emerged Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, had advocated closing the country’s borders to international travellers as long ago as last March at the start of the pandemic.
As Labour demanded an urgent review of border policy Keir Starmer, during Prime Minister’s Questions, challenged Mr Johnson on the issue referring to Ms Patel’s reported remarks to the Conservative Friends of India group, which went against her public defence of the Government’s decision not to enact a full arrivals shutdown.
In a recording of the Tory event, Ms Patel said: “On ‘should we have closed our borders earlier’, the answer is yes. I was an advocate of closing them last March.”
The Labour leader, quoting her words, asked the PM why he had overruled the Home Secretary.
Mr Johnson responded by pointing out to MPs that last March Sir Keir had been adamant the UK did not need to close its borders and derided him, saying: “As usual Captain Hindsight had changed his tune to suit events.”
The PM declared: “We are in the middle of a national pandemic and this country is facing a very, very grave death-toll and we are doing everything we can to protect the British public, which is what he would expect.
“That’s why we have instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world, that’s why we insist that you have to get a test 72 hours before you fly, there must be a passenger locator form which you have to provide and you must quarantine for 10 days or five days if you do a second test.
“I’m delighted he now praises the Home Secretary, a change of tune from him. I’m delighted he is in favour of tough border controls because he wasn’t last year and, indeed, he campaigned for the leadership of the Labour Party on a manifesto to get back to free movement.”
Mr Starmer insisted it was not hindsight, pointing out that what Ms Patel had said last March was not being disputed by the PM, and so he repeated the same question about why he had overruled his Cabinet colleague.
Mr Johnson responded by saying the Government had instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world and repeated the point that Mr Starmer had last March supported maintaining an open border.
He told the Labour leader: “The whole experience of listening to him over the last few months has really been like watching a weather-vane spinning round and round depending on which way the breeze is blowing.
“We are getting on with tackling this pandemic through the most practical means that are available to us, rolling out a vaccine programme that has now inoculated 4.2 million people in our country whereas he would have joined the EU scheme, if I seem to remember, he attacked the vaccine taskforce, which secured the supplies on which we are now relying and he stood on a manifesto at the last election to unbundle the very pharmaceutical companies on whose breakthroughs this country is now relying upon.”
To Tory hear-hears, the PM attacked the Opposition, saying: “They continue to look backwards, to play politics, to snipe from the sidelines; we look forwards and get on with the job.”
Earlier, Ms Patel continued her public defence of the Government’s actions in contrast to her private comments, telling broadcasters that ministers had followed scientific advice over border controls.
She told BBC Breakfast: “Government has listened to a range of advice and followed advice from professionals and advisers – medical and scientific – from day one of this pandemic and there has been collective decision-making across the board.
“When it comes to border measures, for example, there was a lot of work that took place last year, both in transport and in the Home Office, but also working with the scientists who advised us at the time when coronavirus was incredibly high that it would not have made a difference to have taken border measures.”
Nick Thomas-Symonds, her Labour Shadow, said: “This is a shocking admission from the Home Secretary about the Government’s failure to secure the UK’s borders against Covid.
“Priti Patel’s admission, coupled with the complete lack of strategy for testing of travellers, means that the Government has left our doors open to the virus and worrying mutations.
“Ministers now need to – urgently – review and overhaul border policy, whilst taking responsibility for the huge damage their incompetence has done to our national safety and security,” added the Shadow Home Secretary.
Joanna Cherry for the SNP said: “Priti Patel’s admission comes far too late and doesn’t change the fact that thousands of people were allowed to enter the UK for so long during a global pandemic without the appropriate checks and measures in place.”
The Edinburgh MP pointed out how she had called for health protection measures to be put in place at UK borders right at the beginning of the pandemic but was ignored by the UK Government for weeks before it U-turned and introduced an ineffective system for far too short a period.
“It is deeply concerning the Home Secretary knew what had to be done but failed to do so and repeated the same mistakes we’ve seen the UK Government make throughout this crisis by bringing in measures at the eleventh hour.”
Noting how other countries in Europe and across the world had introduced these measures months before the UK recognising how vital they were, Ms Cherry added: “The Home Secretary has consistently been far too slow to act on this and must explain why she failed to step up to prevent increased risk of transmission – despite knowing it was the right thing to do.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “We have strong measures at the border in place which are vital as we roll out the vaccine.”