(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on Covid protections at the UK border.
From January 2020, the Government have had a comprehensive strategy for public health measures at the border. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office swiftly discouraged all but essential travel to China and announced that anybody entering the UK from Wuhan should self-isolate for 14 days.
In February, advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended that those from Thailand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Macau, and those who were symptomatic, should also self-isolate, and regulations were introduced to allow officers to detain and direct individuals. In March, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advised against all non-essential travel, initially for 30 days. On 23 March, the Prime Minister advised that everyone should stay at home and travel only for essential purposes.
A raft of measures followed in May, including 14 days’ self-isolation, passenger locator forms and fines for those who failed to comply with those mandatory conditions. In July, the Government announced the introduction of the international travel corridors. The countries on those travel corridor lists were kept under constant review and removed as the risk of importing covid-19 increased.
However, as the safeguarding of the vaccine roll-out has become the Government’s priority, we have introduced stricter controls. In December, following the identification of the new variant of the virus, we introduced a travel ban on arrivals from South Africa, later extending to a ban on South America and Portugal. We suspended travel corridors and required all passengers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before they embark on their journey to the UK. Anyone arriving must also self-isolate for 10 days.
Those new measures are being robustly enforced to keep the public safe. Passengers must continue to fill in a passenger locator form, and those who fail to comply face a £500 fine. Carriers are under a legal obligation to check that each passenger has proof of a negative test, and are liable for a fine of £2,000 for not complying. To date, Border Force has checked an estimated 3.7 million passenger locator forms, issued more than 2,300 fixed penalty notices and referred more than 22,000 cases to the police.
The UK has a world-leading vaccination programme that should all be proud of. It is therefore right that the Government continue to do everything we can to protect the roll-out of the vaccine from new strains of the virus. We keep all measures under review and will not hesitate to take further action to protect the public.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and to the Home Secretary for her response. It is good to see her in her place, and I hope we will see her there again to answer questions about how 400,000 police records were deleted and give us the promised update on that matter.
The efforts of the British people and the hopes of the vaccine are being undermined by the Government’s inability to secure our borders against covid. Conservative incompetence is putting our country at risk. Labour is calling for a comprehensive hotel quarantine system, with protections to secure us against new strains. It cannot be restricted to only a handful of countries, leaving gaping holes in our defences against different strains of the virus emerging around the world. The Government must also announce a sector support package for aviation.
The Government’s proposals being briefed to the press are half-baked and will be ineffective. As ever, it is too little, too late. From the start of the pandemic, the Government’s handling of measures at the border has been chaotic. There has not been a comprehensive strategy as the Home Secretary suggested. Indeed, from January last year to 23 March, only 273 people were formally quarantined. I wrote to the Home Secretary in April and asked her to learn the lessons of that, but still by May the UK was an international outlier, with virtually no travel controls.
When formal quarantining was introduced in June, the policy was so badly handled that it was ineffective. It is not being properly enforced, and the Government’s own figures show that only 3% of people are being successfully contacted to ensure that they are observing the quarantine. Even the introduction of mandatory testing was delayed because the Government could not get the structures in place.
On the briefed plans for hotel quarantine, can the Home Secretary confirm when formal plans will be introduced? Will they be comprehensive or limited to a few countries? If they are limited, how will that be acceptable when the quarantining system is in such disarray? Put simply, what confidence can the public have in the Government on this issue if Ministers are not prepared to learn from their own mistakes?
Let me begin by saying that I welcome the hon. Gentleman giving us a chance to discuss these measures. He has also mentioned the police national computer, about which we will provide an update in due course; I can give him that reassurance.
There has been a comprehensive strategy across Government, and it dates back to 27 January last year. The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware and sighted of that. It started with travel advice from the FCO, followed by guidance from SAGE from 10 February last year. New statutory instruments, including regulations, were introduced, and there were new powers for the medical profession and the police to detain individuals carrying symptoms of coronavirus. Guidance was issued to airports in February last year around how to handle coronavirus, and there was a flurry of travel advice. That was supported by self-isolation measures and, in March, the Coronavirus Act 2020. There was a parcel of mandatory quarantine, passenger locator forms, shutting the border with Denmark when the new strain was identified, test and release, banning flights from South Africa, pre-travel tests and carrier liability.
This is a comprehensive approach and strategy. It is important to note that throughout, when it comes to coronavirus and measures at the border that involve other Departments, the measures set out have naturally come with logistical and operational challenges. I take this opportunity to thank our operational partners—our airports, in particular, and Border Force, which has been on the frontline day in and day out, checking passengers. I mentioned earlier the number of checks, and Border Force is now checking 100% of passengers arriving in the UK. We have the isolation assurance service, which is increasing the number of checks to 5,000 a day. The National Police Chiefs’ Council is already surging capacity to provide those checks.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to newspaper reports and speculation. It would be wrong of me to speculate about any measures that are not in place right now, as policy is being developed. He spoke about quarantining, and he claims that the Labour party has been calling for tougher restrictions. If I may say so, his party should reflect on its position. In August last year, the hon. Gentleman himself called quarantine “a blunt tool”. In July, the shadow Transport Secretary, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), said that quarantine measures should be “lessened”. In June last year, the Leader of the Opposition also said that the system was “a blunt instrument”.
Measures are always under review, and it is right that the Government review all measures. As I have said, we have a world-leading vaccination programme. We are proud of that programme, and the Government will do everything that they can to protect that vaccine from new strains of the virus.
I commend my right hon. Friend for her unwavering commitment to keeping our borders secure. In that context, she will know that in Kent we of course support that, but we also support the free flow of legitimate haulage traffic across the channel not just for the sake of the national economy but to keep our local roads flowing freely as well. Can she assure me that any new measures will not impede the flow of freight traffic through the tunnel and across the channel?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank him, as a Kent MP, for the work he has been doing, particularly on flow and hauliers. We absolutely have throughout the last 12 months—through difficulties as well, if we recall back in December—protected the flow of freight and critical supplies. That will continue.
It is simply not accurate to say that there has been a comprehensive strategy in place since January 2020, and it is really quite extraordinary that a Home Secretary previously so obsessed with stopping people from entering the country and deporting those already here should have taken so long to properly address covid protections at the UK border.
As the Home Secretary knows, in April and May last year I wrote to her asking for comprehensive health protections at the border, and I referred to the measures that had been introduced in other countries in Europe and across the world. Last week, the Home Secretary admitted that we should have closed our borders earlier, so why did she fail to take precautions that she knew were needed? What stopped her? Was it her Cabinet colleagues? If so, why did she not resign and speak out, given the risk of increased transmission from people entering the country?
Finally, it is good that four-nations discussions are now taking place, but it is the Home Office that collects and holds passenger data, and the UK Border Force, as the Home Secretary explained, reports to the Home Office, a UK Government Department. Can she confirm that all proper co-operation will be afforded to the devolved Governments going forward?
I think it is fair to say that the hon. and learned Lady and I will disagree on a number of things, including her opening remarks on the Government’s strategy. I have already outlined them, so I do not need to run through the range of measures that have been undertaken, but I would just like to reflect on a point she made about co-operation across the four nations. She will be very well aware that co-operation has taken place from the outset through the introduction of travel corridors and through the work of the UK Border Force across the United Kingdom. If I may say so, it does that incredibly well at our ports and airports across the UK. In fact, earlier last year I visited many of our Border Force officers in Scotland, both at Edinburgh and Glasgow. The co-operation is incredibly strong. The dialogue always continues and does exist. That will continue as, potentially, measures may change, as they have done throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement on the work being done by our Border Force. Does she agree that while our efforts to contain the original coronavirus strain were working, because of the increased transmissibility of the new strains it is right that we re-evaluate the work being done at our borders?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Throughout the pandemic, we should all reflect on the way in which it has changed all our lives, but also on how it has touched our lives in many, many ways, and sad ways. All our measures have been under review, and that will continue at the border and with regard to the vaccine roll-out, as my hon. Friend points out.
The Home Secretary lifted all the self-isolation rules for travellers on 13 March last year. In the following 10 days, up to 10,000 people with covid arrived in the UK, making the pandemic worse. Lessons must be learnt this time. Further delays in strengthening quarantine and testing are a serious problem. Can she tell me why we saw crowded scenes at Heathrow on Friday at the UK border—the very opposite of quarantine? Is it true that for months people have been waiting for hours in those queues in unsafe circumstances? Is it true that the Border Force lifted some of the checks that she just said were being applied to 100% of passengers, because those queues were unsafe?
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee will be aware, with regard to her comments about last year, that the advice from Government was to stay at home, and clearly the point of that was not to travel. She asked, rightly, about the scenes at Heathrow airport at the weekend, and the fact is that those queues materialised because of the compliance checks that Border Force had put in place. I would like to thank Heathrow airport, because, as she will also be aware, we—colleagues in Border Force—work with the airport operators on social distancing measures at the airport. That is a joint piece of work that takes place, and all airports take responsibility for their work and how they manage their flows. Border Force, in particular, is there to enforce the checks, as it does now, achieving 100% coverage. It is also now working with London Heathrow airport’s assistant organisation—its contractors—HAL, which is also working as a triage function to make sure that people are being checked. I think the British public and the travelling public would just like that reassurance and that welcome news that checks are in place. If that means queues, obviously, we are working with airport operators in terms of how they are supported and triaged as arrivals come into the airport.
Given the nature of the new variant and the unique challenges that it has presented, I am pleased that new measures have been introduced, such as covid testing at the border, to help keep people safe as we continue our excellent efforts in the vaccination roll-out. Does my right hon. Friend agree that of course it is right that border measures are kept under constant review as we battle this fast-changing virus, and that it is much easier to be in Opposition making loud and sometimes conflicting suggestions with the benefit of hindsight?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Again, it is worth reflecting on the fact that we are in a global health pandemic and all measures must always be under review. She made the point as well about Opposition parties and the flip-flopping. At the end of the day, the Government have to make difficult decisions and choices, working with operational partners, and that is exactly what we have done from day one throughout this pandemic.
Hundreds of asylum seekers are being housed in decommissioned Army barracks in Kent and Wales. Locked in, residents of the Napier barracks camp in Kent are forced to sleep in dormitories of 28 people. Social distancing and self-isolation are therefore impossible. One hundred people in the camp—that is, one in four—have tested positive for covid. One in 20 are on suicide watch. These are disgraceful, inhumane conditions, and the Home Office has now belatedly said that it will move those with covid out of the Napier camp. Will the Home Secretary now respect the rights and dignity of these people, close these camps and provide good, safe and liveable housing instead?
It is important for the hon. Member to understand that the accommodation facilities that we are using are military bases that are of a very high standard—so much so that they were housing and accommodating our service personnel, men and women, prior to the base being made available to asylum seekers. The reason the base was made available is that in line with Public Health England guidelines, because of coronavirus, we need space for social distancing, which has been absolutely in place. These accommodation sites are in line with PHE guidance—we have always checked guidance and worked with PHE throughout coronavirus when it comes to accommodation. [Interruption.] I can see the hon. Lady shaking her head—perhaps she would like to listen to the facts and not some of the jaded views that she may hold herself. Alongside that, the reason we have removed a number of asylum seekers over the weekend is actually to protect others from catching coronavirus. That is absolutely the right thing to do, because public health and public safety are important, and that, of course, is in line with PHE guidance.
I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that she is doing to secure our borders. Given the current situation with a new, more transmissible virus, can I ask whether she agrees that we need to look again at our rules and guidance with regard to borders to make sure that we are limiting the amount of virus that comes through them?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely correct. We have an amazing vaccine programme. As we all know, the world is speaking about our vaccine roll-out programme, and we should be very proud about that. None the less, until the roll-out is advancing in the way that we would like it to, we need to take measures, and, as the House has heard me say several times now, all measures that we take throughout this pandemic are under review.
Measures of this sort have been a feature of all the systems that have been most effective in tackling coronavirus around the world, so the question that most people will want to hear answered today is, why did it take so long to get here? Will the Home Secretary do a bit to bolster public confidence in her decision making by publishing the evidence on which she has based the day’s decision, as well as the evidence that she has relied on to make different decisions hitherto?
Throughout the pandemic, all decisions have been made by looking at scientific advice, and the right hon. Gentleman will be well aware of that, and it is no different when it comes to protective measures at the border. He heard me speak about shutting the border when the mutant strain from Denmark was prevalent, and taking action around flights from South Africa and other countries, which was absolutely right. That was based on scientific advice, much of which has also been put out in the public domain.
I recognise that the Home Secretary cannot talk about measures that are being discussed at the moment, but I hope that she can assure the House that, if decisions are taken today, as we expect, a Minister will be appearing at the Dispatch Box tomorrow to update the House on those measures. May I just ask her this: given that the chief scientific adviser has said that coronavirus will be with us “forever”, are the measures that are being contemplated expected to be permanent to deal with that permanent risk of a mutating variant of the virus that the vaccine cannot deal with, or temporary?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his important question. First, all announcements were made both in the conventional way and to the House, as Mr Speaker would expect. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend will understand, measures are always under review. Decisions will be taken through the consultative process within Government based on evidence, based on discussions and based on a number of facts. The virus, of course, is changing, although it is still with us. The vaccine roll-out is a new element, a new consideration, in terms of the nature of the measures that are being taken. It is fair to say that there has been a layered approach with these measures. As we have seen, there has been escalation and de-escalation. Right now, we have escalated the measures through the banning of the travel corridors, so these measures will be under review. Naturally, as the roll-out progresses, new strains may or may not materialise internationally. We will obviously have to take everything into consideration when it comes to permanency or the timetabling of the application of certain measures.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answers today to the urgent question. She will be aware of the substantial concerns that exist around the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland as pertains to covid travel. Further to the announcement from the Republic of Ireland, can the Secretary of State confirm what, if any, contact has been made to ascertain the current situation and to share information regarding passengers’ travel to the Republic of Ireland and, potentially, to Northern Ireland, which should not have been withheld at any stage? Furthermore, what steps will be taken to save lives by being sensible about our shared border?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. First of all, the advice is not to travel. It is to stay at home for the very reason that he has given: we are in a pandemic and we need to protect public health. He has highlighted some of the things that are taking place right now. Secondly, it is important for me to emphasise that this is a joint effort. Collaboration takes place in relation to the common travel area, the sharing of information and the sharing of data around passengers and flows. That has always been the case, and that will continue. None the less, I still emphasise that there is no need for individuals to travel. When it comes to the CTA and to the areas to which the hon. Gentleman is referring, we are also thinking predominantly about the movement of goods and hauliers, and, of course, there are checks in place for those particular examples.
Can my right hon. Friend outline what support the Government will be providing to regional airports such as Teesside International to assist with these measures?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Of course, we are speaking about current measures that are in place right now and have been put in place by the Government. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is working constantly with airports across the country in constructive dialogue in terms of the measures, the impact on flow and changes in flow. Again I would like to emphasise, recognising that these are difficult times of course, that people should really not be travelling unless there are exceptional circumstances.
I also wrote to the Home Secretary in April on covid border measures, and the reply on her behalf from her Home Office colleague, Baroness Williams, said that
“we have brought in the right measures at the right time”,
but we now know that the Home Secretary did not believe that, because she recently said publicly that she had wanted the borders closed. Is it not the case that it is not only my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) who believes that these new measures are too late, but that by her own admission she believes that herself?
I have already outlined the comprehensive package of measures that we brought in from January last year. It is all very well to talk with hindsight about measures in the past, but there were many discussions that took place. Alongside that, the measures are clear on testing, on test to release, and now on banning various flights and on carrier liabilities. These measures are in place and they will continue to be in place, but as I have said, as evidence changes, the situation changes. The measures are under review and changes will be announced in due course.
Is it usual to bill prisoners for the cost of their incarceration?
I refer my right hon. Friend to my statement earlier.
As an island nation, there is absolutely no reason why we could not follow the lead of countries such as New Zealand, which had strict border measures in place from the start of the pandemic and where normal life has been able to resume. That is something that we are all watching with envy from lockdown 3. As we approach a year since the first covid case in the UK, can the Home Secretary tell the House why it has taken her so long to put in an effective strategy to stop covid—particularly the new strains of covid—entering the country, and what steps will be taken to prevent travellers from circumventing travel restrictions by flying through countries with no restrictions?
I am intrigued by this new hindsight that everybody seems to have adopted rather quickly, when I have already outlined the position of the Opposition earlier in my remarks. The hon. Lady has heard my comments around the comprehensive approach, the list of measures that have been put in place, and the people that we have worked with in Government and out of Government in terms of operational partners. We have a comprehensive strategy that has been in place since January last year, but as I have said repeatedly, the measures will be under review as they have been throughout the entire pandemic, including health measures at the border.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what she has been doing. Will she strengthen the law against people trafficking, which remains a worrying danger? Can she also ensure that the necessary travel controls do not stop essential work travel?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. First, on people trafficking, he has been assiduous on this and he has heard me speak a number of times about the measures that we are bringing forward in terms of legislation and plans around tackling people trafficking and smugglers. We have some good reports on the criminal penalties and sanctions that have been levelled against individuals. Secondly, he is absolutely right about the fines that we are putting in place and the exemptions that are required in key areas such as goods, in particular, coming into the country.
Pacific countries that controlled their borders have suffered less economic harm from covid. With evidence growing that the South African and other variants are resistant to antibodies, which could undermine the vaccine programme, when will the Government introduce this more rigorous quarantine, and how will they support the aviation sector through 2021, when these measures are likely to be needed?
I refer the hon. Lady to my statement and the comments I have made about measures being under review and announcements being forthcoming. It is not for me to give a timetable for what is taking place, because obviously there is a lot of work that takes place day in, day out across Government around border measures and the overall approach with regard to coronavirus.
I welcome these proposed measures; clearly, at times of highest risk, we need the strongest measures. Will the Secretary of State agree to be transparent and publish the criteria that the Government will use for deciding which measures will be in place at what time between quarantine, self-isolation and travel corridors being allowed?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not want to speculate about new measures; he will bear with me, as he has heard me say this a number of times. There are processes around making decisions, and clearly, when changes come forward, the Government will announce the details in due course.
It is not hindsight. The Home Secretary knows that the Home Affairs Committee, on which I sit, took evidence from New Zealand and Singapore last year about what they were doing to successfully apply effective covid controls at the border. Ten months on, it feels that the Home Secretary is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. I simply ask her this: why did our measures not work? Did they not go far enough, and does she take any responsibility for that?
As a member of the Select Committee, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that in April last year, we discussed at the Select Committee health measures at the border and the work of the Government. In terms of the effectiveness of the measures, he will be very familiar with all the measures—the statutory instruments, the regulations and the directions to airports, Border Force and the ports. As I and other members of the Government have said throughout, and particularly today, all measures are under review, and that is the right thing to do.
The Home Secretary will be aware that the aviation sector has been one of the most adversely affected by the pandemic. While it is right that the Government take all appropriate steps to protect public health, she will also be aware that any further restrictions will have a damaging impact on the sector. Can she reassure me that if any new restrictions on travel are brought in, they will only be in place for as long as necessary? Will the Government work with airports and airlines to find ways to safely allow flights to recommence as soon as possible?
Let me give hon. Friend reassurance about the way in which the Government across the board have worked with the aviation sector. He is right about the impact that coronavirus has had on global travel, airlines and the people who work in the sector. Government will continue to work with stakeholders and partners in the sector. They are our operational partners. We work with them every single day at our key airports and our ports, and that will continue.
I understand that the Home Secretary does not want to comment on any measures that are still to be confirmed, but if people are required to self-isolate on entering the UK, will the Government consider putting support in place to help those who cannot afford to finance their own quarantine but may be travelling due to, for example, a family emergency or bereavement?
If I may, I will restate the point that I made earlier: I am not going to comment on speculation. All Members will have to be a little bit more patient and wait for formal details as and when announcements are made.
I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree that returning British citizens need certainty about what to expect at the border. Can she assure me that advance information to travellers will be as explicit as possible, so that nobody can turn up at the airport claiming that they did not know which test to get or when and what documentation they would need to prove it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question, and she is absolutely right of course. The role of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for Transport throughout this pandemic has been very clear in terms of advice, and that will continue.
Will the Home Secretary indicate whether she thinks it is appropriate that the isolation assurance service has been checking just three out of 100 people on quarantine compliance? Surely she realises that that is totally unsatisfactory and falls far short of what is required to keep our country safe.
First, I pay tribute to our colleagues who are working on checks. The isolation assurance service has, throughout, increased its checks, and those numbers are wrong. It is right and vital to point out that the collaboration that takes place with not only the IAS and Border Force, but the police and others is right and vital—and it is working. As an organisation, the IAS has been stepping up the checks it has been undertaking.
As the MP for Redcar and Cleveland, I represent many of Teesside’s offshore oil and gas workers. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if any additional border restrictions are put in place, that important part of our economy will not be negatively affected?
My hon. Friend is, rightly, a strong advocate for his constituency and this important sector in his constituency. There have been certain limited and restricted exemptions, but I repeat that if he bears with us on this and has patience, he will find that announcements will come in due course. He is, however, right to highlight his constituency interest.
As is the case in relation to any covid restriction, what businesses, operators and the public want and need is clarity, certainty and notice. So if the Government are going down the route of border closures, and I note what the Secretary of State has said already, will she provide an indication as to how long any restrictions are likely to last and provide reassurance that the Government will give support if this means no 2021 season for inbound tourism operators and their supply chains?
It is important at this stage to reflect upon the amount of support that the Government have put in to businesses throughout this pandemic. Of course the hon. Lady is right on certainty for businesses and others with regard to coronavirus restrictions. Nothing has changed on that, and of course we will work with all sectors, as we have done throughout this pandemic, when it comes to not only support, but giving them information up front.
Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that people should not be travelling in and out of the country unless absolutely necessary? Will she assure me that airports are fully aware that they too have a moral duty to ensure that social distancing is in place?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right: we are in a global health pandemic. The daily numbers that we see of people being hospitalised and the impacts of covid are a sobering reminder of all of this. I wish to make a couple of points. Of course passengers are checked at the airports—we have just discussed that today. All airports across the UK are operational partners, and they have a responsibility to comply with those social distancing and covid-compliant measures. We will continue to work with them and support them to do so. As ever, my message again is: people should not be travelling; we are in global health pandemic.
The Home Secretary will be aware that the Scottish Government cannot unilaterally close the border in Scotland to international arrivals. May I therefore ask: in the event that further restrictions on international arrivals are imposed, will she commit to offering the full resources of the UK Border Force, including funding, if required, to ensure that Scotland is able to operate effectively as part of a four-nations approach?
The hon. Gentleman has made the case for a stronger United Kingdom and for the Union working together, which is absolutely right, and we have been doing that, with Border Force in particular. I pay tribute to my Border Force colleagues across the country for the very strong work they are doing, in Scotland, Wales and across the UK, because they have been on the frontline every day.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key benefit of Brexit is that decisions on our immigration, national security and borders are now exclusively matters for Her Majesty’s Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will know that in Britain post Brexit we are clear in terms of the powers and decisions that we are able to undertake. That is, of course, effectively what the Government are now doing, and my hon. Friend has highlighted some clear areas where that change has now happened.
The first covid case in Wales was recorded on 28 February last year, yet almost a year later the UK Government remain reluctant to follow the science wholeheartedly in relation to the health risks implicit in international travel. While today’s answer is insufficient, the Government’s measures will also be difficult to sustain in the long term. Given that health is devolved, what plans are in place for the UK Government and the Welsh Government to work together on a long-term plan to ensure that international travel is not again a threat to public health?
If I may I will take the right hon. Lady back to January last year. She just mentioned travel measures, but travel measures were brought in in January last year. I am not going to run through again the various measures that have been undertaken. If I may say so, when it comes to the devolved nations, there is support and work in place, and calls take place on a near daily basis. It is absolutely right that we take a united approach to dealing with measures and restrictions, but also to tackling coronavirus. I absolutely urge Ministers across the four nations: if they have any particular issues in respect of joining up, speaking with one voice and being much more united, the Government’s door is well and truly open because that is exactly what we have been trying to do over the past 12 months.
I commend the Home Secretary for all the work that she and her Department are doing to keep our borders and people safe during this period. More than anything else, aerospace workers in Burnley need planes to be back in the air, so will the Home Secretary assure me that her Department is looking at what measures might be needed on the border in the long term to allow travel to resume in a safe and secure way?
I commend my hon. Friend for speaking about the aerospace sector and the innovation that takes place within it. Of course, across Government we recognise that coronavirus has been very challenging for the aviation sector, so those discussions will always take place and have taken place, and support will continue to be part of that wider discussion. The Government are committed to that.
On the day that Office for National Statistics figures show that the UK now has the highest number of covid deaths per million population in the world, and given that currently the isolation assurance service does not check the vast majority of those required to isolate, how can the Home Secretary assure us that enforcement of these new rules will be adequate, and that they will not be more honoured in the breach than the observance?
The hon. Lady has made a very important point. The number of deaths from coronavirus has reached 100,000. Every death is an absolute tragedy. I think that puts this discussion today into some context—a great deal of context, in fact—regarding not only measures but the fact that we are working night and day to reduce the spread of coronavirus. I have highlighted the checks done by the isolation assurance service, but it is not just about that service. It may reassure the hon. Lady to hear that Border Force is now fulfilling 100% of compliance checks, working with airport staff on triaging to bring in those checks and with airports and ports on queues and managing the flows coming in. Those are important measures, but it does come back to the need for compliance, which is why, again, I urge everyone who should not be travelling to please stay at home.
Given the huge efforts that everyone has made, which have now got infection rates back under control, and given the rise of new covid strains in a number of countries around the world, does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot risk importing further new strains of the virus into the UK, which would undermine all that work?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have spoken already about our incredible vaccine—our world-leading vaccine—which we are proud of. Our work and focus since the development of the vaccine have been about protecting that vaccine from new strains, hence the measures that we brought in in December—the pre-travel tests and the carrier liability for pre-travel tests as well. Those are important measures, and they are clearly linked to the vaccine, but also to stopping the spread of coronavirus.
The Home Affairs Committee and the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus—in our report following our inquiry last year—recommended tighter border restrictions to suppress the virus, reflecting the success of countries that followed a SARS/MERS pandemic model, rather than a flu pandemic model. It just is not credible for the Home Secretary to say that there were adequate protections at our borders. Given this, why have the Government been so slow to protect the country’s public health and the economy via its borders?
I am naturally going to disagree with the hon. Lady, and do so respectfully. As I have already said and as she will recall, last year at the Select Committee we had a lengthy discussion around coronavirus measures at the border and the number of people coming into the country, and I have highlighted the measures that are in place. These are stringent and strong measures, which have been put in place in a layered approach throughout the pandemic. When the situation has changed, when the evidence has changed, and when new strains have materialised and developed, the Government have taken the right action at the right time.
Many residents in Hyndburn and Haslingden have raised concerns about people entering our country and not following the isolation guidance when they arrive. Will the Home Secretary please reassure my residents that more stringent measures will be in place, if necessary, to control the virus?
I reassure my hon. Friend and her constituents about the isolation assurance service. As I have said, that service is working with Border Force and the police around absolutely following through on compliance checks. The IAS is linked with Public Health England, so it clearly takes the lead on that. My hon. Friend’s constituents should be reassured by the checks that we have in place, which are very clear; Border Force and others are working together to ensure that they are working.
The Home Secretary said last week that she was an advocate of closing the borders last March. Given that she chose not to answer my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on this matter, could I ask again—why did she not make stronger public representations at the time? Or was she silenced within her own Department?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier comments. I have been very clear about the measures that have been brought in since January last year. Any Member of this House saying that the Government have not taken action is completely wrong. I would be more than happy to write to him with the list of every single step and measure—from the Home Office, the Department for Transport and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—that has been brought in at the border.
I know that the Home Secretary understands the importance of trade and the pressures facing many UK hauliers right now, so will she confirm that, regardless of what new measures are brought in at the border, hauliers will get all the support they need to keep vital trade flowing in and out of the country?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The role of hauliers—for goods, freight and medical supplies—has been at the forefront of all our actions when it comes to keeping goods flowing. I point my right hon. Friend to the work and testing measures that he will have seen at our ports—at Dover. These are important measures that do exactly that; they help to keep goods moving, and that will continue.
On this tragic day, when, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of UK covid-related deaths is about to surpass 100,000—many from poorer and working-class backgrounds—can the Home Secretary confirm that any upcoming plans on borders and hotel quarantining will not disproportionately affect the poorest while being a luxury for the richest in our society?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. First of all, I am not going to get into speculation around new measures and things of that nature. It is a tragic day, a sad day; it is a terrible, terrible, shocking reminder of how coronavirus has touched the lives of so many people. It is right, quite frankly, that all our measures are kept under review, and today’s figures are a sobering reminder of why we do that.
This is a really miserable time for everybody involved in the travel industry. Yesterday, Hays Travel announced that it is going to close 89 of its 535 stores. At the moment, it is unclear whether that will impact on the four stores in Northamptonshire, including the shop in Kettering. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that if the Government tighten the border controls, they revisit the financial help available to the travel industry?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I completely hear his comments. As I said, our operational partners and the people in the sector have had a torrid time. It is for my colleagues across Government to continue that work and dialogue. I should emphasise that dialogue always takes place with sectors and businesses. That is important, and it will absolutely continue.
The Home Secretary pays tribute to border staff, but they face risks working in close contact with arriving passengers and clandestine arrivals, particularly since the end of the transition period, without commercial-grade masks or personal protective equipment. What additional measures have been put in place to protect the staff that she rightly speaks so highly of?
I will always speak highly of my frontline partners in Border Force, who do exceptional work across ports and airports. From the start of this pandemic, we have supported Border Force staff and resourced them with PPE and the equipment they have asked for and needed—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head, but we absolutely have, and the head of Border Force, who I work with day in, day out, can testify to that. As I have already articulated, measures at the border are always under review. Those incredible staff are put under pressure, for example, when airports are very busy. They are there, and we have measures in place to protect them, including the way in which we rota them and keep them distant from travelling members of the public.
I offer my support to the work that the Home Secretary has undertaken during the pandemic by reacting to the ever-changing challenge of this virus. As she knows, Warrington is getting used to having a more significant connection to UK ports, and to Ireland and the channel tunnel, with the recent addition of an inland border facility. Can she assure me that the new measures will not impact the flow of freight and cause issues with lorries queuing in my rural villages?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Obviously, as part of the end of transition, inland sites were created to assist with the flow of goods, as we have spoken about this afternoon. Again, Border Force is involved with inland sites, and that will absolutely continue. The measures are under review, and we are making sure we can operationalise them. That equally applies to the inland sites that he refers to.
I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.