Covid Inquiry: Home Office had ‘no capability’ to delay arrival of pandemic, Patel says

Former home secretary tells hearing scientists advised border checks would have “minimal impact” on virus spread in early 2020
Dame Priti Patel appears at the Covid Inquiry yesterday

By Jim Dunton

10 Nov 2023

Former Home Secretary Dame Priti Patel has told the Covid Inquiry that her department was effectively powerless to prevent the arrival of the pandemic to the UK in early 2020.

Patel told yesterday’s hearing that while work had previously been undertaken by government on what to do in the event of a flu pandemic or cases of Ebola, the coronavirus pandemic posed problems that could not be responded to at the UK border.

Patel, who served as home secretary from July 2019 to September last year, said that in February and March 2020 the Home Office had “no technical capability” to respond to the virus at the UK’s international gateways.

She said identification of coronavirus at borders was “simply not available” and that advice from experts including the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies had been both clear and pessimistic.

Inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC asked Patel whether she had been informed that screening and temperature checks would be “practically ineffective” and that closing the UK’s borders would be unlikely to delay the onset of the virus – despite “terrible ramifications” for individuals and trade.

“That’s absolutely correct,” Patel replied. “All the evidence and the documents that have been supplied to the inquiry show that very clearly.

“The advice that I received, and I think was shared widely across government at the time, showed that it would have a minimal impact in terms of preventing the spread of the virus, in terms of community transmission.”

Patel added that she also remembered being advised that closing the UK’s borders or introducing Covid checks for arrivals would not have helped the NHS prepare for the approaching deluge of virus cases.

Keith suggested that the situation the Home Office and the government were confronted with in February and March 2020 was a “distinct absence” of capability to restrict the spread of infection across the border and “no sophisticated or effective system” ready to be put in place.

“I think that's absolutely correct,” Patel replied. “At that stage the skills and capability certainly weren't there.”

Keith noted that despite a lack of measures to prevent the arrival of Covid at the UK’s borders, the Home Office had been able to restrict visa applications from people who had been resident in – or who had travelled through – parts of China most affected by the virus in the early days of the pandemic.

Patel said she believed the measures, introduced in early February 2023, had a “significant practical impact” and showed that there were other options to stopping people from entering the UK at the physical border.

The inquiry continues.

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