Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic came under fresh pressure today as the Home Secretary exposed a Cabinet rift over the delay in closing borders and the chief scientific adviser suggested that tough action was left too late.
Speaking in a video conference last night, she said: “On ‘should we have closed our borders earlier’ the answer is yes, I was an advocate of closing them last March.”
Her remarks to Conservative Friends of India members were recorded on video and made public by the Guido Fawkes gossip site.
Ms Patel’s office would not respond to charges that her disclosure flouted the rules on collective responsibility, which forbid ministers from attacking agreed policies in public.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, later admitted the Government “got some things wrong” during a Q&A on Sky News.
Asked for lessons learned from the first wave, which led to Britain recording the highest number of deaths in Europe, he said: “The lesson is: go earlier than you think you want to, go a bit harder than you think you want to, and go a bit broader than you think you want to, in terms of applying the restrictions.”
He added: “You’ve got to go hard, early and broader if you’re going to get on top of this. Waiting and watching simply doesn’t work.”
In other developments:
- Care homes will not allow visits to elderly residents even after the vaccine is given, Sir Patrick indicated. He said levels of community infection must also come down a long away, suggesting many weeks or even months before families can be reunited. “I’m afraid my answer is no, it’s not safe,” he said.
Speaking about the separation of elderly people in care homes from their families, Sir Patrick said: “This is a horrible situation. Many of us have got relatives in care.” But he stressed: “This is not the time to be relaxing any measures.”
- Hospitals are “like a war zone” because of the pressure on them, said Sir Patrick.
- People will probably need regular Covid jabs in future and may have to wear masks in busy indoor places in winter, Sir Patrick said. “This virus has taken us by surprise time and time again and we just don’t know."
- Labour called for more cash help for people who cannot afford to self-isolate. Shadow communities secretary Steve Reed said there was “a postcode lottery” at present.
Mr Reed told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that it was vital people self-isolate and were not punished for doing the right thing, adding: "What we are seeing is the Government set up a discretionary scheme, a discretionary fund of money, that councils can allocate to people who need to self-isolate but can't afford to.
"The problem is the Government established a fixed pot of money and, in some cases, councils have eked it out so much that many people applying for the funding haven't received it.
"In other cases councils have used up all the money because they have more people applying than were expected.
"So, we end up with a postcode lottery, if you live in one area you might get the funding, if you live in another area you might not."
Meanwhile, Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Government's Sage scientific advisory panel, said it was "not the time to relax" restrictions and agreed some measures may be required next winter.
Prof Semple, speaking in a personal capacity, told Sky News: "I think this is a fair and honest representation of the state of where we are at present.
"One in eight to one in 10 people have had this illness and, although we have vaccinated the most very susceptible people, there are a large number of people - perhaps 80% to 90% of the population - (who) are still susceptible to getting severe disease that would cause hospitalisation and put them at risk of long Covid.
"I completely agree this is not the time to relax."
He warned that if the NHS was not protected, there would be knock-on effects on other vital public services such as police and fire brigades.
"It's not just the NHS we are talking about supporting here - levels of sickness within society as a whole, if left unchecked, would rise and cause greater problems in society."
Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said: “This is a shocking admission from the Home Secretary about the Government’s failure to secure the UK's borders against Covid.
“Priti Patel's admission, coupled with the complete lack of strategy for testing of travellers, means that the Government has left our doors open to the virus and worrying mutations.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have strong measures at the border in place which are vital as we roll out the vaccine.”