Boris Johnson has defended attacks on his planned hotel quarantine scheme, saying it is “not practical” to completely shut Britain’s borders to protect against new coronavirus variants.
The prime minister was accused of not listening to his scientific advisers, who said on 21 January that only mandatory isolation in government-provided accommodation for all travellers arriving in the UK could come close to preventing the import of new strains.
Under the current plans, only UK residents and nationals arriving from 30 “red list” countries will have to do that – though travel is banned with South Africa given the emergence of a new variant that COVID vaccines appear less effective against.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer asked at Prime Minister’s Questions why Mr Johnson “chose not to do the one thing that SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] said could prevent new variants coming to the UK”.
The prime minister hit back, saying England had “one of the toughest regimes in the world” and pointed to unpublished SAGE advice that he said concluded a “travel ban should not be relied upon to stop the importation of new variants”.
He also told Sir Keir “it is not practical completely to close off this country as he seems to be suggesting – what is practical to do is to have one of the toughest regime sin the world”.
But the Labour leader said that was a “complete nonsense” representation of his position and criticised the surge of new variants coming at a time that “our schools are shut and our borders are open”.
He added that when the pandemic began, just 0.1% of COVID-19 cases were brought in from China but 62% came indirectly – from France and Spain.
“Why does the prime minister think that the variants of the virus will behave differently and only arrive by direct flights?” Sir Keir asked.
Mr Johnson said the opposition cannot “have it both ways” with borders being kept open for freight whilst calling for tougher quarantine measures.
No date has been set by the government for when hotel quarantine will come into force, with three cabinet ministers on Wednesday unable to clarify when the rules will change.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News “that will be set out shortly” and that he is “working on these proposals”.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said they would be published “in due course”, with time taken up by “logistical and operational considerations”.
While Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said an Australia-style border shutdown would not make Britain safe.
“We are an island nation – unlike Australia or something which is an entire continent,” he said.
“And that means that we need to get medicines in, we need to get food in, we need to get our raw materials in, sometimes we have to move people around, scientists and others. If we weren’t doing these things then we simply wouldn’t be combating this crisis.”
In a sign the four-nations approach to coronavirus is fracturing more, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced yesterday she would go further and apply the hotel quarantine rule to all those arriving in the country.
A race is under way to try and find all those with the South African coronavirus variant, after it was revealed 11 cases of community transmission had been tracked down.
And Mr Hancock said there were other “mutations of concern” discovered in Liverpool and Bristol.
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