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Out of the 69 Downing Street press conferences that have taken place in the Covid-19 pandemic, Priti Patel has led just three. Admittedly, that’s three more than the zero that Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary (who might have things to say about Universal Credit and unemployment), has taken part in, but it’s still not a lot.
No.10 prefers ministers who can arrive at the briefings armed with An Announcement, rather than to simply answer questions. Today, the home secretary did indeed have a big policy to reveal, but whether it will do Downing Street any favours remains to be seen.
Yes, the 14-day quarantine was Patel’s moment in the spotlight. Boris Johnson wants to make a big noise out of this plan to keep international travellers out of the UK, though many critics (within and without the Tory party) think the loudest noise is of a bloody great stable door being clanged shut after the Covid horse first bolted into the country in March.
Several cabinet ministers are deeply uneasy about the quarantine plan, not least as it sends out a signal to the world that Brexit Britain really isn’t “open for business” (just ask the chorus of business groups complaining tonight). But they’ve been told this is a priority for both the PM and the Home Office. Why? Because of the signalling it sends to voters about having ‘strong borders’ about not ‘reimporting’ the virus from overseas.
Patel claimed “we are following the science”, but as ever that science seems to be selectively chosen. Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam let slip just over a week ago the real flaw in the proposal. It’s worth reading his quote in full: “When quarantine makes most sense scientifically is when the incidence [of the disease] in the receiving country is low. And it makes most sense in terms of travellers coming from areas where the incidence is high.”
Given that the UK’s ‘incidence’ is among the highest in the world, and given that many countries have a low infection rate, it seems logical to conclude that there will be lots of exemptions to this new crackdown on people coming from other countries. Greece, But, logic is not what this is about. It’s about the perception of strengthening those borders. Brexit is after all about controlling ‘our money, our borders, our laws’.
Patel at one point actually said “we are not closing our borders”, but of course in reality no one is going to come to the UK to spend a fortnight in a Travel Tavern on the outskirts of Heathrow or Dover. She even said “this is absolutely not about booking summer holidays”, even though today’s announcement at a stroke puts off anyone from planning a foreign break. As one former minister put it to me today: “Do you think a factory worker will have the time or money to afford two weeks holed up after they come back from their well-earned week on a Greek beach?”
Patel did however give a clue to the cabinet splits over her policy. Asked about Grant Shapps’ proposal of ‘air bridges’ to low-risk countries, she said: “We should be absolutely open to all ideas, this is not for today, but it doesn’t mean we should rule it out in the future.” The policy would also be reviewed after three weeks.
If the government is trying to have its cake and eat it (symbolism of raising the drawbridge, but reality of not hurting the aviation industry, business or tourism), it wouldn’t be the first time. Especially if enough ‘ease-the-lockdown-for-the-economy’ Tory backbenchers pull off another Whatsapp-fuelled rebellion.
After yesterday’s U-turn on the NHS surcharge, further zig-zagging on policy wouldn’t be a surprise either. Patel flagged the possibility of helping health and social care staff with visa fees, and even dangled the prospect of easier citizenship for what she called our “NHS heroes”.
It’s worth recording here that Patel’s preview hints at U-turns don’t always materialise. The whole surcharge inequity was first raised at her last No.10 briefing on April 25, when she said she would ‘review’ it as well as visa issues. Three weeks later the Home Office tweeted there was no such formal review, then Boris Johnson ruled it out at PMQs and...well the rest is history.
Given how much this government wants to get across its ‘tough’ message on immigration, just why is it finally relenting on issues like migrants who work in the NHS and social care?
Well, never forget that the power of the NHS is what drives many of the former Vote Leave team who now work in No.10. That famous red bus wrapped itself in the NHS logo (it’s not too daft to say it was ‘the NHS wot won Brexit’). And when Johnson needed a brilliantly simple message to support his lockdown, it was ‘Protect The NHS’ that did the trick. If care workers are now allowed similar status, don’t be surprised to see them eventually exempted from the points-based immigration system too.
The real moral problem with this approach (and it’s one Labour will have to confront too) is that it sorts migrants into ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ categories, just like the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. If an NHS surcharge is unfair on a migrant cleaner working in healthcare, why is it fair for a migrant cleaner working in a school or an office? Both already contribute to the NHS through their taxes.
Patel today said repeatedly that the UK’s immigration system was far too complex and she’s right. If she somehow manages to improve it for all migrants and not just ‘NHS heroes’, she would be the first Tory home secretary in decades to look progressive on the issue. Coming weeks and months will tell us if that’s a U-turn too far for her or her party.
Quote Of The Day
“[SPI-M] cannot say with consensus, which combination of useful policy changes will result in R remaining below 1.”
A subgroup of the government’s scientific advisors fail to agree on the risks of school reopening
Friday Cheat Sheet
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance revealed that the UK’s ‘R’ number for Covid-19 was between 0.7 and 1, unchanged from last week. There’s a two-week lag in the figures, but it cuts it fine in meeting a key precondition of the June 1 easing of the lockdown.
The government’s scientific advisers finally published their modelling on the reopening of schools. Trade unions said it confirmed the lack of clarity. Vallance said reopening would not be ‘high risk’.
New arrivals to the UK will face a 14-day quarantine from 8 June.
The Guardian and Mirror revealed that the PM’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings was spoken to by police after he travelled 264 miles from his London home to Durham while he had coronavirus symptoms.
Downing Street refused to rule out London emerging from the lockdown sooner than other parts of the country.
Boris Johnson has agreed to appear before the Liaison Committee of senior MPs next Wednesday at 4pm. Chairman Sir Bernard Jenkin praised the ‘speedy’ response to his invite, telling me: “Having me as a trusted bridge between the government and the Liaison Committee should be of benefit to scrutiny and accountability.”
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.