Four ministries at war: JASON GROVES examines the maddening inside story of blame and confusion over the UK’s coronavirus quarantine rules
- No one minister or department is singularly accountable for quarantine policy
- Home Secretary Priti Patel resisted the idea of quarantine-free ‘travel corridors’
- Reimposing quarantine on Spain was ‘driven through’ by Matt Hancock in July
The controversial quarantine policy has been marred by inconsistencies and Whitehall infighting since it began.
The policy may have wrecked thousands of family holidays, and driven the aviation industry to the brink, but remarkably, no one single Government minister or department is fully accountable for it.
The Department for Transport, the Foreign Office, The Department of Health and the Home Office all had a hand in its creation and continue to play a part in its operation.
At the same time, the secretive Joint Biosecurity Centre – which reports to Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty – also plays a central role.
The Department for Transport, the Foreign Office, The Department of Health and the Home Office all had a hand in the Government’s controversial quarantine policy. Pictured: Passengers wear face masks as they arrive with their luggage at Terminal 4 of London Heathrow Airport in west London
Decisions on which countries to add to the quarantine list are taken by the Cabinet’s coronavirus operations committee, with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove as chairman – Boris Johnson does not attend. Graphic shows: The impact of Covid-19 on the UK travel industry
Decisions on which countries to add to the quarantine list are taken by the Cabinet’s coronavirus operations committee, with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove as chairman – Boris Johnson does not attend.
As a result, the process for making decisions, on which both holidays and jobs depend, is as transparent as a breeze block.
At its farcical peak, quarantine was reimposed on Spain while the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was on holiday there.
The decision was ‘driven through’ by Health Secretary Matt Hancock on the day Mr Shapps arrived, although sources insist the Transport Secretary accepted it was the right call.
The secretive Joint Biosecurity Centre – which reports to Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (pictured) – also plays a central role in quarantine policy operation
Adding to the chaos, devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can go their own way.
The confused lines of responsibility have led to frequent changes of direction.
Officials asked about why a decision has been taken often roll their eyes and point towards another department.
The policy was born out of the UK’s bitter experience in February when, experts now concede, the coronavirus was seeded in Britain by holidaymakers returning from breaks in Italy and Spain.
Few would now argue against the need to restrict travel from countries where the virus is running rife.
As one No 10 insider put it: ‘What would people say if, having got case numbers right down, we allowed it to be imported from abroad?’
But back in February, ministers and their scientific advisers dismissed the need to quarantine arrivals from countries with infection hot spots.
As it became clear that imported cases had fuelled the disaster, the Home Secretary Priti Patel pushed to close Britain’s borders to the worst affected countries, although it still took weeks.
By the time the policy was finally introduced on June 8, cases were in steep decline and the airlines were in uproar.
Mr Shapps, under intense pressure from the aviation industry, successfully championed the introduction of quarantine-free ‘travel corridors’, despite opposition from Miss Patel and Mr Hancock, and scepticism from the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Miss Patel had pushed instead for the introduction of testing at airports.
But the policy was resisted by Professor Whitty who said it would not be effective.
Miss Patel is said to have largely lost interest in the quarantine policy, leaving testing at airports to be championed by Mr Shapps.
But despite promises of further talks, there is no sign of progress.
The decision to reimpose quarantine on Spain was ‘driven through’ by Health Secretary Matt Hancock
Home Secretary Priti Patel resisted the idea of quarantine-free ‘travel corridors’ had pushed instead for the introduction of testing at airports
Whitehall sources insist the policy has been looked at and remains ‘under review’. However, testing capacity constraints suggest it will not change any time soon.
‘There might be a case for testing after eight or ten days, but should that be a priority for the testing capacity we have got?’ asked one source.
In the meantime, the aviation sector is bleeding to death and feels that its proposals for a workable testing regime that could ease the quarantine nightmare are being ignored.
To rub salt in the wound, it is not clear who, if anyone, has got a grip on the system that threatens to smother the dream of creating a new ‘Global Britain’ before it has even materialised.