Nick Thomas-Symonds – 2021 Statement on Covid Security at UK Borders

The statement made by Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2021.

I beg to move,

That this House calls on the Government to immediately introduce a comprehensive hotel quarantine system for all arrivals into the UK, thereby securing the country against the import of new strains and maximising the effectiveness of the country’s vaccination programme; to publish the scientific evidence which informed the Government’s decision not to introduce a comprehensive hotel quarantine regime to flights from all countries; and to announce a sector support package for aviation focused on employment and environmental improvements.

I am grateful to the Minister for coming to speak in today’s debate. I think it is the first time that I have appeared opposite her in one of these debates.

Last week, the country passed the heartbreaking milestone of 100,000 deaths as a result of this awful pandemic. I know that everyone across the House mourns all those lost, and we think today of all the families up and down the country for whom life will never be the same again.

Our United Kingdom is a country of incredible resources and many of the world’s finest scientists. It has the dedication and brilliance of our wonderful NHS and care workers—indeed, all our frontline workers—and yet we have still ended up with the worst death toll in Europe and the worst economic hit of any major country. We have to learn the lessons fast. More than 50,000 people who died as a result of this awful virus in the UK died since 11 November. We have to ask why the United Kingdom has fared so badly, not as some sort of academic exercise, but to save lives.

In recent days, the Government’s chief scientific adviser said:

“You’ve got to go hard, early and broader if you’re going to get on top of this. Waiting and watching simply doesn’t work.”

That is the lesson that he is advising the Government to draw: to go wider when they can. But are Ministers really learning that lesson?

We are an island country. Our border protections should have been one of our strengths throughout this pandemic, unlike countries that have very long land borders that they would have had to police. Instead, it has been one of our greatest weaknesses. Our country’s doors have been left unlocked. First the virus and then its mutations have been imported to our shores. The lesson is that failing to act quickly and decisively leads only to greater pain further down the line.

From 1 January to 23 March last year, only 273 people from four flights were formally quarantined, when over 18 million people entered the country by air. That came at a time when we all saw the terrible scenes in northern Italy of hospitals being overwhelmed, when our constituents were contacting us questioning why there were not better and more effective controls at our airports, and when our own chief scientific adviser to the Government said

“a lot of the cases in the UK did not come from China”

and that they

“came from European imports and the high level of travel into the UK”

at that time.

I wrote to the Home Secretary in April to ask her to learn the lessons from that, but still the UK remained an international outlier. In May 2020, the UK stood with only Iran, Luxembourg and the US Virgin Islands in having no border protection measures in place. In that first national lockdown, 446,500 people—nearly half a million—arrived in the UK. It was not until 8 June last year that formal quarantining was introduced. Even when border testing was made compulsory, which was only this month—10 months after the first lockdown began—the Government still had to delay the implementation as they could not get the necessary systems in place. Where has the proper strategy on border testing been? This essential and vital strategy would have made such a difference.

Rather than careful planning, we have experienced chaotic scenes at Heathrow, even in recent weeks. Covid is not going away. We need this strategy, and we need it now. The Government border policy has lurched from one crisis to another devoid of strategy, and we have seen that only in recent weeks with the announcement of the Government’s latest proposals on hotel quarantining. Limiting restrictions to just a small number of countries means that the protections do not go anywhere near far enough, with the threat of new variants coming in from other countries not on the red list. In the words of the Government’s chief scientific adviser, are they really going “hard, early and broader”? Absolutely not. Again, it is too little too late. Even when Ministers made the announcement, they had no date for bringing it into effect.

Our vaccine roll-out is a source of great hope for the whole country, and great credit must go to our scientists and all those involved in the vaccine programme, but the biggest threat to the vaccine programme is from mutant strains of the virus. We know where some mutant strains have emerged because of the advanced genome sequencing that detected them, but too few countries have that expertise. We know the virus will mutate further, and we cannot risk one of those mutations undermining our vaccines. Back-Bench Conservative MPs who do not support this motion today are sending a message that they are willing to take that risk.

The hard truth is that we have no certainty about where the next more dangerous strains of Covid will emerge. We have been warned that new strains are already potentially threatening vaccine efficacy, and yet we still have around 21,000 visitors entering the country daily. It will make no sense to people that Britain’s borders are still open while the country is locked down. That is why Labour is calling for decisive action today through a comprehensive hotel quarantine policy, and that would mean a policy of enforced quarantine restrictions on arrivals. Of course I accept that there would need to be exemptions, especially in areas such as haulage to keep the country functioning, but our starting point must be a comprehensive policy. Failing to adopt that policy risks undermining the huge gains that have been made by the vaccine roll-out, threatening life and hope.

The existing quarantining system is not working. To see that, we have only to look at the Government’s own figures, which show that just three in every 100 people have been successfully contacted for quarantine compliance —yet another Government failure. Other figures suggest that just one in 10 passenger locator forms is checked at airports. None of that is good enough, and it has happened because the Government have failed in their duty to properly drive a consistent strategy and high performance through our measures at the border and the checks of the isolation assurance service.

Yet those inadequate measures are still our protection against the virus for all but a limited number of countries on the red list. Devoid of strategy, the Government continue to be behind the curve, hoping for the best. It is little wonder that there seems to be such confusion and unedifying counter-briefing among the Cabinet on the policy, because frankly, it makes no sense. We do not even know at the moment when the policy will be introduced and whether the Government propose legislation for it, as has been speculated.

I have great respect for the Minister, as she knows, and it is great to see her present for the debate, but I note that the Home Secretary is not participating in it to defend Government policy, which after all is part of her departmental responsibilities. Frankly, she has every reason not to be present, given that the Home Office has lost 400,000 police records and she still has not explained what has been lost, let alone how she will retrieve it. We also know what her personal view is of Government policy. There has been alleged briefing to newspapers that she does not agree with Government policy, but if there was any doubt about what her view was, we can all watch the video of her telling Conservative party members that she advocated for the borders to be closed back in March last year.

We know that the Home Secretary does not support, and has not supported, the Government policy on the borders that she has had to defend in public, so who does support it? The Health Secretary, who was said to be opening the debate instead of her, is not present either. It is said that there have been briefings to newspapers that he is another Cabinet Minister who does not agree with the policy. Perhaps the Minister can outline and promise to publish the full scientific data that underpins the Government’s decision to create a so-called red list of countries, and set out not just the commencement date but what she envisages the exit strategy from the measures to be.

How on earth can the Government be assured that the measures will prevent emerging strains from countries outside those on the red list? The truth is that the Government cannot answer that question. As a result, the policy is fatally flawed. A comprehensive quarantine policy would give us the best possible chance of preventing a new strain from undermining the astonishing collective sacrifice of the British people. It cannot be right that, with the ineffective quarantine system that is in place, 21,000 people continue to enter the country on a daily basis.

I recognise, of course, the huge challenges to the aviation sector and its supply chains, the impact on the tourism and hospitality industry, and the number of jobs that it supports. I have heard about it in my own discussions over the past year, and when I have been able to visit our airport frontline. Let me also pay tribute to Border Force, the police and our wider law enforcement community. They have worked heroically, but the gaps in our defences that have existed and do exist are not their fault, but the failure of Ministers.

That failure also extends to economic support. It is why the Government must come forward with the long-promised sector-specific support deal called for by my hon. Friend the shadow Transport Secretary, saving jobs and ensuring that there are environmental improvements as set out in this motion. Let me be clear: we need to see this support package, and the money needs to be properly targeted to meet its aims. We have seen appalling fire and rehire tactics, which should be outlawed. That practice has no place in our country and it is an insult to workers. Staff salaries should be protected with a clear commitment to workers’ rights, and let us see a commitment to cleaner fuels and other cutting-edge low or zero-emission technologies. Companies’ tax bases should be in the UK, and there should not be dividends paid until a company is commercially viable. UK-based suppliers must be the priority, and operators must comply with consumer rights regulations. The Government have known the need for this for months, and inaction and continuing inaction is not the answer.

As hon. and right hon. Members cast their votes today —indeed, whether or not they choose to cast votes at all—I ask them to think back and learn the lessons. If we had introduced quarantining for high-risk countries only a year ago, what would have happened? As one Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies member, Sir Jeremy Farrar, put it:

“We need to learn the lessons from 2020…If we’d imposed restrictions in January and February last year we would probably have imposed them on high risk countries—China maybe. But almost all the virus that arrived came from Europe.”

There is no point, either, in offering a false choice or a bogus dilemma between protective health measures at the border and the economy. Our best chance of breathing life back into the UK aviation and tourism industry is to be able to lift as many restrictions as possible here at home as soon as it is safe to do so with the vaccine roll-out.

Crucially, that would all be put at risk if a new strain took hold that is resistant to the vaccine, yet the quarantine policy as it stands does precious little to stop that. It cannot predict where the next strains will emerge, and in its current form it cannot stop arrivals in the UK breaking quarantine rules. The existing quarantine system just is not effective. The Government have created an Achilles heel that undermines the heroic efforts of the British people in tackling this virus. Members across this House believe that as well—perhaps even members of the Cabinet. Now is the time to act. Lives will depend on it and our futures depend on it. I commend this motion to the House.