Why Boris Johnson Says No to Tightening UK Borders To Prevent Covid-19 Spreading

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EasyJet aircraft with stormy sky Gatwick photo by A Howse
EasyJet aircraft with stormy sky Gatwick photo by A Howse

“We will learn to live with this disease as other diseases” exclaimed Boris Johnson this evening confident in his keenness to stick to his plan of focusing on an impressive vaccination program, followed by a slow and careful lifting of restrictions.

Boris Johnson stated in a press conference last night that “we must learn to live with this disease.” He explained how the vaccination program has been a success and it was announced that 33 million people had now had their first jabs. The numbers do look impressive with 10 million people now fully vaccinated, which is 1 in 5 adults in England.

The Prime Minister declared that there is “nothing in the date that makes me want to deviate from the roadmap.” This spring’s roadmap is the welcome series of steps that means all the lockdown measures should be lifted by June 21st, if all the healthcare demand for resources conditions are met and there are no problems with the vaccination programme.

Johnson declined to commit in advance to which countries it might be possible to travel to when the restrictions are lifted next month saying “We won’t be able to give red, amber, green list details until early May. It is premature to speculate but we will say more before May 17th.”

In an indication of the top team at Westminster’s thinking in February Transport Secretary Grant Schapps told the Commons Transport Committee: “The idea that the UK could completely batten down its hatches and remain battened down for a year is mistaken.” according to Caroline Davies at BBC News. (1)

There has been strong resistance to introducing a further ban on commercial visitors reaching the shores of Great Britain from the travel industry, which has suffered greatly like several other sectors due to the travel bans and restrictions. Industry body Airlines UK wrote to the government at the end of January questioning the need for further tightening of UK borders.

The Airlines UK letter to Johnson was signed by the leaders of British Airways, EasyJet,Tui and Virgin Atlantic, Loganair, Jet2, Titan Airways, CargoLogicAir and AirTanker. The “airline’s chiefs claim to have seen no compelling scientific evidence that introducing a policy potentially of blanket quarantine in hotels is necessary in addition to measures only recently introduced.” according to FlightGlobal news. (2)

Will UK tighten borders?

Labour Leader Kier Starmer accused the government of doing “too little too late” and told the Commons in January that “the government is failing to protect the public against Covid-19.” (3)

So in the unlikely event there is a snap election and My Starmer becomes Prime Minister theoretically he could choose to follow a New Zealand / Australian style border closure until the Covid-19 threat level has subsided. However as a general election is not due until May 2024 this scenario is extremely doubtful.

At the end of January 2021 The Telegraph reported that the home Secretary Priti Patel told members of parliament that “The government ‘will not hesitate’ to take further action and strengthen border restrictions to protect the UK from the new Covid-19 variants.” However Ms Patel later admitted that she had been overruled by the top team who are keen to continue international trade in order to support the economy. (4)

Why managing border control is a precarious balancing act in 2021

As the UK imports far more than it exports and it is primarily a service driven economy it seems that any Prime Minister is stuck between a ‘rock and a hard place’ when it comes to the balance of locking down to prevent new infections and allowing business to happen through borders that are open to both inbound and outbound travellers, to a certain degree.

There are serious consequences for the financial situation and health for millions of individuals and families across the nation as a result of the decisions that are made in Westminster. We have a recent example of how new Covid-19 cases soared after the usual European travel holidays took place last year.

There are also very real life changing effects for the welfare of households and the availability of jobs, incomes and budgets for benefits which can be felt acutely by millions of citizens as a result of the lockdowns. We have all seen that women, children and some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society have been hit the hardest by the impact of this pandemic.

Whether Labour, Conservatives or another party is in power in the coming months and years it is going to be difficult to choose between closing the borders to keep the public safe and opening up our country to encourage a smooth flow of goods and resources and to generate the prosperity and growth that international trade enables.

Life is about time and opportunity

It is easy to judge in hindsight and nobody knows how the coronavirus may develop in the future or if it will simply recede into insignificance naturally, as the world becomes an increasingly vaccinated place.

In the UK we will always be able to look back and say ‘we are an island and we had the opportunity to secure our borders against visitors and returning citizens who might bring a contagious virus into our population.’ It seems the practicality of taking such measures and the resulting impact on civil liberties and trade, is one big step too far for our commercially driven leaders this year.

(1) Covid: ‘Not practical’ to close UK borders, says Boris Johnson’ Caroline Davies, Transport Correspondent, BBC News, 3 Feb 2021 ‘Covid: ‘Not practical’ to close ‘UK borders says Boris Johnson’ Caroline Davies, BBC News

(2) ‘UK airline leaders call for support and exit plan as borders tighten.’ Lewis Harper, Flight Global 27 January 2021 ‘UK airline leaders call for support and exit plan as borders tighten’ Lewis Harper, Flight Global

(3) ‘Labour attacks Johnson government for lax Covid border controls’ Jom Pickard, The Financial Times, 20 January 2021  ‘Labour attacks Johnson government for lax Covid border controls’ Jom Pickard, The Financial Times

(4) ‘UK ‘will not hesitate’ to tighten borders Priti Patel warns’ The Telegraph 26 January 2021 ‘UK ‘will not hesitate’ to tighten borders Priti Patel warns’ The Telegraph