Minister claims high coronavirus death toll in UK is because it is ‘a global travel hub’

Simon Clarke is interviewed by Sky News on the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK. Photograph: S

Simon Clarke is interviewed by Sky News on the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK. Photograph: Sky News. - Credit: Archant

A Tory minister has dismissed accusations that his government had mishandled the coronavirus outbreak, blaming the high death toll on the number of international travel visitors.

Simon Clarke, who serves as a communities minister, defended the Tory administration against claims it had implemented lockdown too late and that quarantine rules should have been imposed much earlier.

Neil Ferguson, a former government scientific adviser, claimed that up to 25,000 lives could have been saved if the measures had been implemented a week earlier.

He also told a committee of MPs that 1,500 cases were imported into the country from Spain and Italy in early March, but due to a lack of action from the UK, had not been picked up by officials.

He was referring to a study of 20,000 UK coronavirus cases which estimated 34% came from Spain, 29% from France and 14% from Italy.

But appearing on Sky News, Clarke insisted the government had been listening to the science from the beginning.

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He said: 'We were saying that people shouldn't have been taking a risk around this virus. And we were taking the best possible advice open to us at the time.

'I don't think for a second that the government failed to listen to our scientists.'

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When asked if the scientists had got it wrong, he suggested the number of international visitors had played a role, suggesting that was why it had the second-highest death toll in the world.

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He said: 'No,I don't think they did. The truth is that Britain was always going to be hugely exposed to this virus because some of the features of our societies.

'We are a global travel hub and we were always going to face big challenges.'

Asked why therefore quarantine did not take place sooner, he said: 'We have always been clear that we are introducing quarantine at a point it where it is actually proportionate in terms of maximising the saving of lives and the economy.

'The truth is we have followed the guidance we were offered. We have responded in a proportionate fashion to the guidance that we received. No government could or would have done otherwise.

'Everyone who looks at this will see that we faced a series of very difficult challenging choices and we have tried our level best to follow the best practice from the science and, of course, huge numbers of lives have been saved by dint of the actions the government have taken and of the resilience of the British people.'

Viewers were baffled by his claims, which appeared to take ministers' defence of their response to a new low.

Nigel Gibson wrote: 'The UK has one land border and that's on an island. The rest of the UK is on another island (with smaller islands). Other countries which are also travel hubs but are not islands have fared a great deal better; Germany for example.'

Graeme Scarth Lloyd tweeted: 'One side-effect of this pandemic is that it has exposed once and for all the generalised and all purpose stupidity of every single government minister. Clarke here sets himself up neatly for a fall because he cannot see the logical inconsistency of his argument.'

Ron Dickinson asked: 'So Singapore, South Korea, Netherlands and many others are NOT global travel hubs?'

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