There is confusion over when Britain will announce plans for quarantine hotels, after Downing Street denied claims made by Boris Johnson that an update was due tomorrow.
Speaking at today’s press briefing, the prime minister said Matt Hancock would lay out plans tomorrow, but Downing Street have now said that was a ‘misunderstanding’.
Earlier today Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to give a timetable for when quarantine hotels could be up and running.
It comes as the PM insisted ‘shutting ourselves off completely’ is not an option because the countries relies heavily on imports of food and medicine.
But he said the government had taken action to limit travel, pointing to the ban on travel from variant hotspots.
The comments came amid signs that Spain could be added to the ‘red list’ of countries subject to travel bans, as cases rise sharply there. The roster already includes 33 states including South Africa, South America and Portugal as well as the UAE.
Speaking from Downing Street on Wednesday evening, Mr Johnson said: ‘If you do come here from one of those countries, then you will be, as we’ve said, taken and put in special accommodation.
‘The health secretary will be making a further announcement about that tomorrow.’
A source at Number 10 told The Mirror tonight that was a ‘misunderstanding’.
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.
Boris Johnson tonight warned that Britain cannot close its borders completely to prevent mutant coronavirus strains getting in. He also said Matt Hancock would be giving an update on plans to quarantine arrivals in hotels tomorrow, but Downing Street has since claimed this was a ‘misunderstanding’
Spain could be added to the ‘red list’ of countries subject to travel bans, as cases rise sharply there. The roster already includes 33 states including South Africa, South America and Portugal as well as the UAE
Mr Hancock had earlier today refused to confirm whether quarantine hotels for international arrivals will open this month.
The Government announced the policy aimed at limiting the spread of new coronavirus strains last week, but has not revealed when it will be implemented.
Mr Hancock was asked by LBC if the scheme will be launched by the end of February.
The Cabinet minister replied: ‘We’ll set out more details of that when we’re ready to, but you’ve seen that we’re perfectly prepared to take very tough action if that’s what’s needed.’
He went on: ‘Already there is the very clear legal rules – with the strong enforcement behind it – that we’ve now put in place for anybody entering the country as a passenger at all.
‘Whether that is isolation in your own home or in hotels, it is isolation.
‘But we’re always open to looking at tougher measures.’
Mr Hancock had earlier today refused to confirm whether quarantine hotels for international arrivals will open this month. The proposal was announced last week, but the Health Secretary could not give a timeline of when it will be applied, telling LBC: ‘We’ll set out more details of that when we’re ready to’
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
Speaking at a Downing Street briefing tonight, Mr Johnson dismissed the idea that the government was not being strict enough.
‘We have among the toughest border regimes now anywhere in the world, we’re restricting as much as we can, any risk of importing new infection into this country without totally secluding the UK economy,’ he said.
He said it was ‘illegal to go on holiday’, and that passengers arriving from a list of countries around the world will be ‘taken and put in special accommodation’.
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.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock (left) defended the current ‘stringent’ measures – but made clear that even harsher arrangements are in the pipeline. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (right) struck a different tone as he gave evidence to MPs
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.’
At PMQs, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer demanded to know why ministers had not followed the views of scientists two weeks ago that a ‘pre-emptive closure of borders or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival’ was the only way to stem the flow of variants.
But Mr Johnson said the UK had one of the ‘toughest regimes in the world’ and stressed that ‘quarantine hotels’ are being brought in for high-risk countries – although he did not indicate when.
‘It is not practical completely to close off this country as he seems to be suggesting. What is practical to do is have one of the toughest regimes in the world and to get on with vaccinating the people of this country,’ the premier said.
The exchanges came after Mr Hancock said UK border rules will get tougher to protect against emerging strains.
‘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.
Mr Hancock said: ‘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 amid fresh signs of tensions in Cabinet, 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.’
He said: ‘People say ”why don’t we just close down and then we’ll be safe?”
Boris Johnson insisted closing off the country altogether was ‘not practical’ as he clashed bitterly with Keir Starmer in the Commons this afternoon
‘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
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.’