Dr Sarah Ingham is a member of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservative Association.
Although a blue wrecking ball smashed the red wall in the recent General Election, both Conservatives and Labour agreed about the overarching priority of any government.
“The security of our nation comes first. We will protect the British people at home and abroad,” stated the Tories, while their opponents declared: “The primary duty of Government is to guarantee the security of people in the UK.”
On 11th February, Tedros Adhamon Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, warned that the Corona virus was public enemy number one to the whole world and the whole of humanity.
Given this level of threat, why is the Government not closing Britain’s borders?
At the time of writing, in the next hour or so, flights are due to arrive at Heathrow from among other cities, Madrid, Rome and New York, all centres of Covid-19. Birmingham Airport is expecting a flight from Amsterdam’s Schiphol, a global hub, where Flight KL896 landed from Shanghai earlier. Flights from Amsterdam and Paris are scheduled to arrive in Edinburgh.
The Channel Tunnel remains open, but the Eurotunnel website warns travellers from this country that they may be turned away by the French authorities unless they have ‘very good’ reason to travel within France; i.e. going home to a main residence, essential work in France or are medical staff. Ferry operator P&O repeats the warning about France, but also reminds potential travellers that all non-essential travel has been prohibited to Belgium and The Netherlands: ‘You will need to be able to demonstrate that your travel is essential.’
Eurostar is operating a much-reduced service. As it explains, this is due to lower demand for travel and “in response to increased border controls agreed by the French government”.
Taking back control of Britain’s borders was a central plank of Brexit. It is a supreme irony that the EU has effectively ended free movement, while the UK continues to embrace it – some two months after leaving the Union.
Free movement was one of Brussels’ cherished four freedoms, a non-negotiable part of the seemingly interminable Brexit negotiations. But in the past weeks, faced with the Covid-19 threat to their citizens, the leaders of Europe’s nations unilaterally dumped it before you could say Jean Monnet. Throughout the Schengen area, most countries have swiftly imposed restrictions on their borders. They took back control.
Bowing to the inevitable, on 17 March EU leaders imposed a travel ban preventing all non-EU nationals from entering the bloc for 30 days. This was shortly after many of them had condemned President Donald Trump for barring travellers from the 26-nation Schengen zone from entering the United States.
UK and Irish citizens are now included in the US ban. There are some exceptions, for example, spouses of US citizens, but the British government makes it clear that those who are able to enter the Land of the Free will be required to do so through one of 13 designated USA airports and will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days.
In contrast, as the planes landing from around the world highlight, Britain’s authorities have placed no restriction on travel to the UK. This contrasts with the restrictions within the UK, with the Police setting up road blocks to put a stop to what they deem are non-essential journeys. The Italian who got off the plane earlier in the month to ply his trade as an Uber driver could rightfully argue that travel was essential to him.
Anecdotally, many global travellers are amazed they can swan through Heathrow unchallenged and unadvised: Pandemic? What Pandemic? The temperature checks and enforced isolation that have been in operation across East Asia are part of a rigorous containment strategy.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, has outlined progress on the well-meaning Government attempts to bring back Brits stranded abroad, part of the justification for not closing the borders.
“Expert scientific advice” seems to justify the Government imposing the most draconian restrictions on the liberty of British citizens. Middle Britain is, however, prepared to put up with the lockdown to protect the most vulnerable in society. But the patience of fair-minded, decent people is going to be tested over the next few weeks – if not months.
Banned from precious open spaces in their cities, from their beaches and their national parks, voters will have plenty of time on their hands to ask why expert scientific advice says that their countryside must be closed to them, while the country remains open to all and sundry from the world’s current plague pits.
Ministers will surely find there is little sympathy among the cooped-up, fed-up public stranded in their homes for those who decided to jet off on holiday during this global crisis. Maybe 14th-century tourists decided the Black Death was a good time to go sightseeing.
The security of our nation indeed comes first. It is time the Government took back control of our borders.