Boris Johnson dodges two questions in a row over why he failed to close UK borders at start of pandemic

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·3 min read

Watch: Boris Johnson challenged on 'open border' during pandemic

Boris Johnson has twice refused to say why he failed to close the UK’s borders at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson was under pressure at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) after it emerged home secretary Priti Patel told Conservative supporters on Tuesday night that she argued for the borders to be shut to international visitors in March last year, when infections first began to rapidly spread in the UK.

In comments first reported by the Guido Fawkes website, Patel said: “On ‘should we have closed our borders earlier’, the answer is yes. I was an advocate of closing them last March.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer subsequently asked Johnson at PMQs on Wednesday: “Why did the PM overrule the home secretary?”

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - JANUARY 31: Home Secretary Priti Patel (L) looks on Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson chairs a cabinet meeting at the National Glass Centre at the University of Sunderland on January 31, 2020 in Sunderland, United Kingdom. (Photo by Paul Ellis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson was under pressure on Wednesday after Priti Patel said: 'I was an advocate of closing [borders] last March.' (Paul Ellis/pool/Getty Images)

Johnson, however, refused to answer the question and once again labelled Starmer “Captain Hindsight”.

The PM said: “I think it was last March that [Starmer] along with many others was saying we didn’t need to close borders, but as usual Captain Hindsight has changed his tune to suit events.

“We’re in the middle of a national pandemic and this country is facing a very, very grave death toll.

“We are doing everything we can to protect the British public, which I think is what he would expect. That’s why we have instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world.”

That was in reference to tougher restrictions on international arrivals introduced by transport secretary Grant Shapps last week.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday January 20, 2021.
Boris Johnson twice refused to say why he failed to close the UK’s borders at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (PA)

Johnson added he was “delighted” Starmer was “praising” Patel, marking a “change of tune” from his previous campaigning in favour of freedom of movement – a policy the Labour leader abandoned earlier this month.

Starmer hit back, denying it was “hindsight” to point out Patel said Johnson needed to shut Britain’s borders last March. He repeated the question to Johnson over why he overruled Patel.

Johnson again refused to answer, and repeated his attack lines on Starmer.

“We’ve instituted one of the toughest border regimes in the world and it was only last March that he, along with many others in his party, were continuing to support an open border approach.

“I must say the whole experience of listening to [Starmer] over the last few months… has been like watching a weather vane spin round and round depending on where the breeze is.”

In mid-March last year, 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 – partly through strict quarantine measures for arrivals.

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The UK government then 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.

Ministers last week suspended all travel corridors, as well as introducing 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, in a move designed to prevent new strains of COVID-19 entering the UK.

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