Priti Patel struggles to say how many people with coronavirus are entering the UK

PUBLISHED: 14:37 15 July 2020 | UPDATED: 16:57 17 July 2020

Home Secretary Priti Patel answers questions via video-link to the Home Affairs Select Committee. Photograph: PA Wire.

Home Secretary Priti Patel answers questions via video-link to the Home Affairs Select Committee. Photograph: PA Wire.

A Commons committee has called it “troubling” that Priti Patel could not detail how many people with coronaivrus have entered the UK since March 23.

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The home secretary was fronting a home affairs committee when she told panellists her department did not keep tabs on the number of infected people entering the UK from abroad.

Patel said that advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) hinted the number was 0.5% of all cases across Britain.

She also explained that there were now 50,000 people arriving at British borders every day, up from 10,000 in April.

Committee chair Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP, said it was “troubling” the home secretary did not have infection figures available.

“It’s quite troubling that none of you seem able to explain just an assessment of the number of people likely to be coming into the country with coronavirus or a proportion of the 50,000.”

Patel was flanked by chief civil servants Matthew Rycroft and Shona Dunn who explained why the rate had not changed since March 23 - when a nationwide lockdown came into force.

Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, said: “The home secretary has asked and received updated estimates of the proportion in the UK that come in from overseas, that number continues to be up to 0.5%. It happens to be the same upper limit as the number from 23 March but it is refreshed advice from SAGE.”

Estimates suggest between 1,300 and 10,000 cases were brought into the UK before March 23 - predominately originating from Spain and Italy.

Patel also failed to say how many people had been quarantined after entering the country but was able to point out that between June 6 and July 13 there were 383,000 spot checks to assess compliance. A majority were carried out at the border while 20% were done in the community.

When asked how a country found itself back on the quarantine list, Patel said her ministry was not involved in that process and deferred the question to the Department of Health and Social Care.

A Home Office spokesperson later claimed that Patel had been clear on the number of imported cases and that the advice has been that imported cases are “insignificant to the spread of the epidemic”.

They added: “Since the 23rd March, we are also confident that, owing the measures we have put in place, imported cases remain insignificant to the spread of the epidemic.”

Writing to Cooper, chief scientific advisor for the Home Office, John Aston, said: “As you know, I have been clear that any estimate of absolute numbers is highly uncertain due to the number and nature of the assumptions that would need to be made.

“SAGE’s assessment came back as a proportion of the number of cases in the UK. While the calculations can be done to produce an absolute number, I do not believe that any resulting estimate would be reliable.”

On why the rate has not changed since 23rd March, he said: “Since that time, we have continued to monitor whether the proportion of cases at any time has likely become significant, defined as being greater than 0.5% of UK cases. Due to the considerable drop in passenger numbers, we are confident that this did not happen between 23 March and 8 June, and the proportion remained less than 0.5%.

“On July 10, countries with lower risk were exempted from the regulations, and we continue to be confident that the proportion of cases coming from other countries not subject to mandatory self isolation remains insignificant compared to domestic cases, as it is less than 0.5%.”

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