Home secretary Priti Patel has claimed that she argued for the UK border to be shut to international visitors in March when the pandemic first emerged.
In comments first reported by political website Guido Fawkes, Patel is said to have told the Conservative Friends of India group: “On ‘should we have closed our borders earlier’, the answer is yes. I was an advocate of closing them last March.”
In mid-March, the UK abandoned asking people to quarantine for two weeks after arriving from areas with high infection rates, such as Hubei province in China and Italy.
The decision was in contrast to many other countries, such as New Zealand, which has been widely praised for getting the pandemic under control, partly through strict quarantine measures for arrivals.
The UK government introduced blanket quarantine restrictions in June for all international travellers, except those coming from Ireland, while “travel corridors” with countries deemed to have safe levels of infection were established a month later.
The remarks contradict claims from Patel that ministers had followed scientific advice over border controls.
She told BBC Breakfast: “Government has listened to a range of advice and followed advice from professionals and advisers – medical and scientific – from day one of this pandemic and there has been collective decision making across the board.
“When it comes to border measures, for example, there was a lot of work that took place last year, both in transport and in the Home Office, but also working with the scientists who advised us at the time when coronavirus was incredibly high that it would not have made a difference to have taken border measures.”
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “This is 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.
“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.”