Gavin Williamson says PM 'listened to best advice available' amid row over border closure

21 January 2021, 10:38 | Updated: 21 January 2021, 14:44

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Gavin Williamson has told LBC Boris Johnson “listened to the best advice that was available” when not introducing tougher border restrictions in the early stages of the pandemic.

It comes after Home Secretary Priti Patel was recorded admitting the Government "should... have closed our borders earlier" and said she had pushed for that last March.

Mr Johnson has since defended his approach, insisting the UK now has tough restrictions.

When quizzed by Nick Ferrari on who he agreed with, the Education Secretary said: “We’re all on the Prime Minister’s team.”

READ MORE: Starmer asks why PM 'overruled' Priti Patel to keep borders open

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He added: “The advice that we were getting in terms of the health advice and the scientific advice was that [closing the borders] wasn’t necessary and actually potentially would have had an adverse effect so the Prime Minister and government quite understandably listened to the best... advice that was available.

Nick questioned how, in terms of the spread of the virus, it was possible for closing to borders to have an adverse effect.

Mr Williamson added: “There was no advice in terms of closing the borders down at that stage.

“The understanding of coronavirus has grown massively over the past few months, this is a new disease and if you look at the start of it there was no requirement even if you were doing international air travel to be even wearing masks or anything else like that.

“That understanding of how the virus transmits, how it actually passes from one person to another has changed so very much and as a result better understanding of the virus we have had to change policies.”

On the possibility of having quarantine hotels for people arriving in the UK, Mr Williamson said: “That isn’t something that the Government is proposing at the moment but we’ve got a set of travel restrictions in order to be able to protect the population in the UK, if the medical and scientific advice is to more of course we would always look at doing more.”

Ms Patel's comments, which emerged on Wednesday, were made to the Conservative Friends of India group, and are contrary to her public defence of the Government's decision not to enact a full arrivals shutdown.

It was reported that Ms Patel said: "On 'should we have closed our borders earlier', the answer is yes. I was an advocate of closing them last March."

Mr Johnson was quizzed at Prime Minister's Questions by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer about why he chose to "overrule" the Home Secretary.

But the Tory leader evaded the question, instead opting to criticise Labour's policy on border controls.

Mr Johnson said: "I think it was last March that (Sir Keir) along with many others was actually saying that we didn't need to close borders but as usual Captain Hindsight has changed his tune to suit events."

He later defended his approach, insisting the UK now had tough restrictions.

"The rules now are designed to stop people coming back into this country and bringing infection back into the country while we're getting the vaccination rolled out," Mr Johnson told reporters in Downing Street.

"I think it would be absolutely crazy to be vaccinating our country as successfully as we are, and don't forget we're still doing more than any other country in Europe.

"It would be crazy to be doing that huge national effort while simultaneously allowing the virus or new variants of the virus to be reimported back into our country."

In mid-March, the UK abandoned asking people to quarantine for two weeks after arriving from areas with high infection rates, such as Hubei province in China and Italy.

The decision was in contrast to many other countries, such as New Zealand, which has been widely praised for getting the pandemic under control.

The UK Government introduced blanket quarantine restrictions in June for all international travellers, except those coming from Ireland, while "travel corridors" with countries deemed to have safe levels of infection were established a month later.

This week ministers suspended all travel corridors and introduced new rules requiring arrivals to produce a negative coronavirus test taken up to 72 hours before departure and to self-isolate for up to 10 days after entering the UK.

The Government's decision-making on border controls was criticised in a report published by the Commons Home Affairs Committee in August, with MPs concluding that coronavirus had spread faster in the UK as a result of the failure to bring in quarantine rules for travellers early in the pandemic.