Amid the coronavirus pandemic that forced countries to shut borders and restrict air travel, the UK was one of the few nations to stop short of such measures, refraining from introducing tighter quarantine rules for arrivals or COVID-19 texting at airports.
Nevertheless, despite reported differences, in the coming weeks, as the government embarks on a “second phase” of its response to the pandemic, with the country’s current lockdown due to be officially reviewed by the 7 May deadline, tougher border controls are being suggested.
Downing Street sources are cited as confirming that quarantine restrictions would be set in place for arrivals into the country.
Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps and Home Secretary Priti Patel are said to be drafting plans to place both British and foreign citizens arriving in the UK into quarantine for up to 14 days, with violators of the “stay home” notices facing weighty fines.
While there were reports that Shapps showed “resistance” to adopting a tougher new strategy “this week”, his allies dismissed speculations of a rift, saying:
“Grant firmly supports these new measures and is working with Priti on it.”
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was also reportedly on board with the new measures, anticipated to be launched when the UK government rolls out its mass programme of contact tracing to limit the spread of coronavirus after lockdown restrictions are eased.
According to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the operation will be up and running within weeks to identify the newly infected and warn those they have come into contact with.
A tracing “army” of council workers and public health staff, augmented by a smartphone app, will reportedly aid in mapping potential contacts.
Global Outlier Amid Pandemic
Previously, as other nations resorted to hardline measures and closed external borders to slow the coronavirus pandemic, Downing Street dismissed Home Secretary Priti Patel’s calls to stop flights from virus hotspots such as the US, Iran and China from being allowed into the country while it is on lockdown.
In March, the UK refused to tighten border controls or quarantine rules for arrivals, with no COVID-19 testing installed at airports.
The Home Secretary’s calls for remedying the situation had been allegedly blocked at the time by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
“Grant was massively against tougher border restrictions, he argued that we needed the flights to bring people with British passports home, but never showed any data to back it up,” a Whitehall official was cited by the publication as revealing.
Sources confirmed that other ministers had likewise shown skepticism regarding tighter border restrictions, with International Trade Secretary Liz Truss “against it due to concerns about trade”.
Reports of a serious falling out were brushed aside by allies of the transport secretary, who spoke of the incident as “mischief making” and insisted that the two ministers “get on well”.
According to the source, the cabinet had been debating “a different issue about whether to keep all our ports open… We thought that was important for critical freight.” In an unprecedented situation when 90 percent of the global population has installed rigid travel restrictions to thwart the spread of the coronavirus, senior Conservatives are said to be puzzled as to why Britain has not followed in their footsteps.
According to reports, John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow airport, wrote to Health Secretary Matt Hancock the previous week urging mass health screening at UK airports.
However, he was believed to have been told by Downing Street that currently it “wouldn’t be an effective step to take”.
”It’s ironic that the country of Brexit is the only European country that hasn’t decided to close it borders,” a Tory party official was cited as saying.
There has not been an official comment from Downing Street on reports of a cabinet split on the issue.