Matt Hancock says UK border rules WILL get tougher

Matt Hancock today insisted UK border rules will get tougher to protect against mutant coronavirus strains – but refused to give a date when ‘quarantine hotels’ will be up and running.

The Health Secretary defended the current ‘stringent’ measures – but made clear that even harsher arrangements are in the pipeline.  

‘We are also looking to strengthen measures in particular for those countries that have the highest risk,’ he said in a round of interviews.

Mr Hancock played down alarm that minister rejected SAGE advice on the need for a border crackdown, saying scientists wanted ‘mandatory isolation’ for arrivals and that is what had been introduced.  

‘I am up for strengthening that further and we are looking at that,’ he added. 

However, he repeatedly refused to give any schedule for the introduction of ‘quarantine hotels’, amid fear that the policy is still weeks away from being ready to implement. 

Meanwhile, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps struck a different tone as he gave evidence to MPs.

He insisted the UK could not do a full Australia-style lockdown with blanket ‘hotel quarantine’ rules because it was an ‘island’ and needed food imports.

On suggestions the ‘red list’ of travel ban countries will be expanded, Mr Shapps told the transport committee: ‘It might go to more in the future… we simply don’t know until the virus decides what it wants to do.’ 

The government moved to bolster the border regime last week, announcing that the ban on travellers from 33 ‘hotspot’ countries will be tightened so returning Britons and the few other permitted individuals will have to go into ‘quarantine hotels’ at their own expense for 10 days.

But the plan was the subject of an extraordinary Cabinet tussle, with Priti Patel and Mr Hancock among those pushing for even tougher action. 

Ministers will meet tomorrow to consider expanding the ‘red list’ – which includes South Africa, South America and Portugal as well as the UAE. 

Officials have also been looking at tightening exemptions to the travel rules, amid concerns that some are being exploited by people seeking to get around the holiday ban.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the current 'stringent' measures - but made clear that even harsher arrangements are in the pipeline

Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the current 'stringent' measures - but made clear that even harsher arrangements are in the pipeline

Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the current ‘stringent’ measures – but made clear that even harsher arrangements are in the pipeline

The border crackdown comes amid fears the South African variant is already loose in the UK, and other more potent mutant strains could lessen the effectiveness of the vaccine drive. PIctured, Heathrow Airport

The border crackdown comes amid fears the South African variant is already loose in the UK, and other more potent mutant strains could lessen the effectiveness of the vaccine drive. PIctured, Heathrow Airport

The border crackdown comes amid fears the South African variant is already loose in the UK, and other more potent mutant strains could lessen the effectiveness of the vaccine drive. PIctured, Heathrow Airport

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps struck a different tone as he gave evidence to MPs. He insisted the UK could not do a full Australia-style lockdown with blanket 'hotel quarantine' rules because it was an 'island' and needed food imports

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps struck a different tone as he gave evidence to MPs. He insisted the UK could not do a full Australia-style lockdown with blanket 'hotel quarantine' rules because it was an 'island' and needed food imports

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps struck a different tone as he gave evidence to MPs. He insisted the UK could not do a full Australia-style lockdown with blanket ‘hotel quarantine’ rules because it was an ‘island’ and needed food imports

On suggestions the 'red list' of travel ban countries will be expanded, Mr Shapps told the transport committee: 'It might go to more in the future... we simply don't know until the virus decides what it wants to do.'

On suggestions the 'red list' of travel ban countries will be expanded, Mr Shapps told the transport committee: 'It might go to more in the future... we simply don't know until the virus decides what it wants to do.'

On suggestions the ‘red list’ of travel ban countries will be expanded, Mr Shapps told the transport committee: ‘It might go to more in the future… we simply don’t know until the virus decides what it wants to do.’

Fears have been mounting that the South African variant is already loose in the UK, and other more potent mutant strains could lessen the effectiveness of the vaccine drive.

Senior Tories have joined Labour in calling for the countries covered by the restrictions to be widened, and Nicola Sturgeon turned up the heat yesterday by announcing Scotland will unilaterally force all arrivals to quarantine.

In a direct attack on the Prime Minister’s strategy, the First Minister said it would not work and called on him to mirror her approach, telling MSPs at Holyrood: ‘The firm view of the Scottish Government is that in order to minimise the risk of new strains coming into the country, managed quarantine must be much more comprehensive.’

Mr Hancock said today: ‘The government brought in mandatory self-isolation for every passenger coming into this country… now you have to isolate wherever you’ve come from.’

Asked about the quarantine hotel plan he said: ‘Obviously we are working on those proposals.’ 

The Cabinet minister went on: ‘Of course we are always looking to strengthen these things but we already have very stringent measures at the border.’ 

But Mr Shapps seemed far more reticent as he was grilled by MPs this mornig.  

‘People say ”why don’t we just close down and then we’ll be safe?”,’ he said.

‘But, of course, we wouldn’t be safe, because we are an island nation – unlike Australia or something which is an entire continent – and that means that we need to get medicines in, we need to get food in, we need to get our raw materials in, sometimes we have to move people around, scientists and others.

‘If we weren’t doing these things then we simply wouldn’t be combating this crisis. In fact, specifically we wouldn’t have had things like the medicines that we’ve needed or indeed the vaccinations, some of which are manufactured in Europe, only 20 miles away at its closest point.’

He added: ‘The idea that the UK could completely button down its hatches and remain buttoned down for a year is mistaken.

‘But also the evidence that that is the only thing that you need to do, or even the primary thing you need to do, is also pretty shaky.’

A leaked Sage document from last month warned that ‘geographically targeted travel bans’ would not be enough to stop new strains entering the country.

Labour seized on the warning, saying ministers should now force all travellers arriving in the UK to undergo ten days of supervised quarantine in hotels.

Labour veteran Dame Angela Eagle said the Government had done ‘too little and too late to stop the spread of this new and dangerous variant in the UK.’

But Downing Street insisted Sage backed Government’s proposals.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: ‘Sage did not actually advise the Government to completely close borders or call for a blanket quarantine on travels.Their modelling showed a combination of specific policy options – including pre-departure testing and isolation – are effective in mitigating the public health risk.’

Arrivals from 'red list' countries are set to have to isolate in hotels at their own expense. It is not known if this hotel will be involved in the scheme, which is still being hammered out

Arrivals from 'red list' countries are set to have to isolate in hotels at their own expense. It is not known if this hotel will be involved in the scheme, which is still being hammered out

Arrivals from ‘red list’ countries are set to have to isolate in hotels at their own expense. It is not known if this hotel will be involved in the scheme, which is still being hammered out

However, some Tory MPs joined the calls for a tightening of controls to prevent the arrival of Covid strains resistant to the vaccine.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said: ‘We are doing a fantastic job in rolling out the vaccine, but there is no point heating the house and leaving the windows open.’

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News: ‘I think we should have done this much earlier, but I am pleased that we are doing something.

‘I think it is absolutely right that we are bringing in hotel quarantine.

‘The trouble with just doing it for a few countries is that someone coming to the UK from Brazil could go via numerous other countries.

‘It is very difficult if you restrict it to a small number of countries. So we might need to expand that list significantly as we go forward.’

The Cabinet Office is also conducting an urgent review of exemptions from the travel restrictions.

One Whitehall source said: ‘The exemptions are drawn too widely. At the moment, for example, people can go abroad to look for a holiday home and some are using that to get round the rules on holidays.

‘We have got to reduce the flow of arrivals right down. We are making it really tough to travel, but we need to make it even tougher.’

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