Boris Johnson has been accused of “overruling” Home Secretary Priti Patel – after she claimed she argued for the shutting of the UK’s borders at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In video footage of her comments to Tory supporters, Ms Patel suggested she privately pushed for tougher border measures during the UK’s first national lockdown last year.
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Ms Patel said: “On ‘should we have closed our borders earlier’, the answer is yes. I was an advocate of closing them last March.”
According to the Guido Fawkes website, which published the footage, Ms Patel made the remarks in an address to the Conservative Friends of India group on Tuesday night.
At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis last year, the UK did not close its borders – unlike other countries around the world – although travellers from some places were asked to quarantine for 14 days.
MPs have since expressed concern about why this targeted action was abandoned in mid-March, before the introduction of blanket quarantine measures in June.
At the time, government scientists suggested there was no evidence that closing the UK’s borders or enforcing quarantine measures would halt the spread of infection.
This was because international travel had significantly decreased and the virus was already widespread within the UK, while Britons were being ordered to stay at home.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer grilled Mr Johnson over the issue – and Ms Patel’s comments – during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
“Why did the prime minister overrule the home secretary?” he asked.
Mr Johnson replied: “I think it was last March that (Sir Keir) along with many others was actually saying that we didn’t need to close borders but, as usual, ‘Captain Hindsight’ has changed his tune to suit events.”
The prime minister said the UK had “instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world”, adding: “That’s why we insist you have to get a test 72 hours before you fly, there must be a passenger locator form that you have to provide and you must quarantine for 10 days or five days if you do a second test.”
Sir Keir said Ms Patel’s remarks on Tuesday night were “not disputed” as he again pressed Mr Johnson on why he overruled the home secretary.
In his response, the prime minister said: “I must say the whole experience of listening to (Sir Keir) over the last few months has really been like watching a weather vane spin round and round depending on where the breeze is blowing.”
He added the government was “getting on” with tackling the pandemic with the “most practical means that are available to us” as he praised the vaccine roll-out.
Newspaper reports from last March claimed Ms Patel had urged Mr Johnson to stop flights to the UK.
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Labour’s shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, earlier on Wednesday branded the emergence of Ms Patel’s comments as 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,” he added.
“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.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “We have strong measures at the border in place which are vital as we roll out the vaccine.”
Downing Street on Wednesday said the prime minister has full confidence in Ms Patel.
This week, the government closed all UK travel corridors – which had allowed arrivals from some countries to avoid having to quarantine – until at least 15 February.
People coming to the UK from abroad also now have to show proof of a negative COVID test from up to 72 hours before their journey, as part of efforts to prevent new COVID strains entering the UK.