Nick Thomas-Symonds – 2021 Speech on Health Measures at the UK Border

The speech made by Nick Thomas-Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary, in the House of Commons on 27 January 2021.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for her statement and for advance sight of it. We stand here today with knowledge of the terrible fact that more than 100,000 people have died as a result of this awful virus. We mourn all those lost and think of the families for whom life will never be the same again. In marking that fact, it is not enough to say, “Let us wait to find out why Britain has fared so badly.” We must learn from past mistakes and, crucially, act now. One of the key areas where the Government have clearly fallen short is on protecting our borders. I am deeply concerned that the measures outlined today are yet another example of that—too little, too late.

Yet again, the Government are lurching from one crisis to another, devoid of strategy. Limiting hotel quarantining to only the countries from which travel for non-UK residents was already banned means that the Home Secretary’s proposals do not go anywhere near far enough. Perhaps that is why it appears that there has been briefing to newspapers that the Home Secretary is personally not in support of the policy that she is now advocating to the public.

Mutations of the virus risk undermining the efficacy of the vaccines, threatening life and hope. We cannot know where these mutations will emerge from next. The truth is that the Government are once again behind the curve. Labour is calling for comprehensive hotel quarantining. Today’s announcement is too limited. It leaves huge gaps in our defences against emerging strains. We know that the strains that emerged in South Africa and Brazil have already reached these shores. That is little wonder given that controls have been so lax, with just three in every 100 people quarantining having been successfully contacted and border testing introduced only 10 months after our first lockdown—and even then the start had to be delayed, because the Government could not get the necessary systems in place.

We have seen this reluctance to be decisive from the start of crisis. From 1 January to 23 March last year, only 273 people were formally quarantined, when more than 18 million people entered the country by air. That was at a time when the Government’s chief scientific adviser said:

“A lot of the cases in the UK didn’t come from China…They actually came from European imports and the high level of travel into the UK around that time.”

In April, I wrote to the Home Secretary to ask her to learn the lessons, but by May the UK still was an international outlier, with no travel controls.

As the Home Secretary today belatedly announces very limited hotel quarantining, many questions remain, and I would appreciate it if she would address them. First, how can we be assured that travellers will not arrive with emergent strains via countries that are not on the control list? Secondly, what support is being made available to ensure improvements to quarantine compliance and the isolation assurance service? Frankly, why has it taken so long to step up checks, as the Home Secretary said today, when we know that the system has been failing for months? What discussions have taken place with hotel chains to ensure the availability of rooms? Again, for those travelling out of the UK, why is the enforcement being stepped up only now?

Will the Home Secretary ensure that sufficient support and resources are made available for these very important tasks? When will the Government announce a sector-specific support package for aviation? Getting this policy right is absolutely crucial. The Government cannot allow our border policy to continue to be the Achilles heel of the heroic efforts of the British people during this pandemic.