Stuart McDonald – 2021 Speech on Covid Security at UK Borders

The speech made by Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2021.

If the Government do not learn from mistakes they make during this pandemic, those mistakes will be repeated, with the same terrible consequences. Let us be clear: this Government have made significant mistakes on covid security at the border. I accept that some of those mistakes are easier to see now with hindsight, but others should have been and were apparent at the time. Indeed, the UK approach to borders stood out like a sore thumb for significant parts of last year, compared with the actions taken by even neighbouring countries. It is not just me saying that, because the Home Affairs Committee has said it. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) has repeatedly pointed out the flaws in the Home Office response over the past year, as one would expect from such a distinguished and knowledgeable home affairs shadow. I pay tribute to her for that work and look forward to maintaining the challenge she posed to the Home Office on this issue and on many, many others.

Of course, the Home Secretary herself has accepted that the Government got it wrong, saying that she argued for border closures last March. That raises questions about why she stayed in post when she was overruled, rather than arguing for essential border closures from outside the Cabinet. Last week, she accepted that there were

“still too many people coming in”—[Official Report, 27 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 406.]

to the country. That is a stark admission so far into a pandemic. The new measures announced last week by the Home Secretary just about amount to a step in the right direction, but, as is typical of much of the Government’s response to this crisis, it is not a decisive step; it is a hesitant half-measure, when what we needed was bold action.

The Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, has said that the Scottish Government and the SNP believe that

“a comprehensive system of supervised quarantine is required”.

“Comprehensive” is certainly not how we would describe the very limited scheme that the UK Government have drawn up, so we support the Opposition motion. If the Government really want to persuade us that this tentative hotel quarantine policy will genuinely make a difference, Ministers must tell us what estimates they have made of the numbers who will be impacted by these new requirements? How many hotel rooms do they believe will be required? On the other hand, how many thousands of people will continue simply to pass straight through the airports, and out on to public transport and into our towns and cities?

Put simply, we support a more comprehensive scheme because that is what the evidence points to. Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the Home Affairs Committee:

“The places that have had very effective quarantine measures do not ask people to quarantine in their homes.”

So why is the UK not learning more quickly from international best practice? Instead, the UK has offered a half-baked measure that does not bring comfort to the disastrously impacted aviation industry; nor is it decisive enough to appear capable of making any real difference to covid in this country. The Government have tried to operate a timid middle-way compromise, and instead have helped neither public health nor industry. In relation to the South African strain, the stable door was closed half-heartedly, and only after the horse had well and truly bolted.

Both the Scottish and Welsh Governments have expressed concerns that the measure does not go far enough. Although public health measures can take the devolved Governments so far, with border powers and passenger data in the hands of the Home Office, co-operation is required. The preference would be to have strong and consistent quarantine rules across the UK, so I ask Ministers and the Home Secretary to listen and engage very carefully; as and when the devolved Governments seek to go further than the half-baked UK measures, I hope that they will co-operate and provide support.

We need a more comprehensive scheme to protect from covid arrivals at the border. At the same time, we need a bespoke and comprehensive package of support for the aviation industry. From the outset of the pandemic, it was clear that one of the sectors that would be most impacted was aviation. The UK Government clearly felt the same and promised sector-specific support, but the one Government who jumped into instant action to support the sector were the Scottish Government, who provided 100% rates relief for a full year, which has now been extended by at least three months, with the aim of extending it longer. It took the UK Government six months to do anything similar.

With the vast majority of flights grounded, the situation facing the sector is still absolutely dire. Tens of thousands of jobs have gone in the sector, and many that remain have been forced to accept lower terms and conditions. I ask the Government again to support the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) to outlaw that practice. The sad truth is that, without further support, tens of thousands more jobs will go, so the Chancellor must deliver urgent help, including: action on furlough extension; reversing the decision on tax-free shopping; extending rates relief; and much, much more.

Finally, it is important to emphasise that all these issues will be of increasing importance in the months ahead. As we look forward, with some guarded optimism, to getting cases back under control and as vaccines are rolled out, declining domestic transmission means that preventing transmission from international arrivals becomes more important, not less—if we really are serious about suppressing this virus. I dearly hope that the Government are serious about that. If so, they should support this motion.