The Government took the “right decisions at the right time” through the coronavirus crisis, a Cabinet minister has insisted, as the Home Secretary prepares to outline tougher border measures amid criticism the move is too late.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said “we did everything that we could to protect people’s lives”, but admitted some things could have been done differently “with the benefit of hindsight”.
He told Sky News: “We took the decisions that we could at the time on the basis of the information that was available to us.
“And we did everything that we could to protect people’s lives and help to weather the storm, and take the country through this very challenging period.
“There is no textbook as to how to respond to a pandemic like this, but we do believe that we took the right decisions at the right time.”
His comments came as the Government’s figure for coronavirus deaths passed 100,000 – but separate data published by statistics agencies places the toll at 115,000. It is almost a year since the first known coronavirus death occurred in the UK on January 30.
Mr Jenrick said Priti Patel would set out “further steps” to control the flow of people arriving into England in a Commons statement later on Wednesday. She is expected to announce a limited plan forcing arrivals from Covid-19 hotspots to quarantine in hotels.
The move is designed to protect the country against new coronavirus variants arriving from overseas – but these are said to be softer than Ms Patel had hoped, with The Times reporting she had pushed for a temporary closure of the UK’s borders, but was overruled by Mr Johnson.
There was no official comment following the meeting of the Covid operations committee of senior ministers on Tuesday, but Whitehall sources ahead of the talks suggested the measures could stop short of mandatory hotel quarantines for all arrivals.
They suggested that the rules may only apply to British nationals returning to England from high-risk nations, with passengers expected to cover the price of quarantining.
The Times reported that the committee rejected calls for a full border closure and will instead limit it to those returning from 30 countries already covered by the travel ban, including those in South America, Portugal and Cape Verde, as well as South Africa and neighbouring nations.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth criticised the Government for failing to impose strict measures at the borders soon enough.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said: “We should have had comprehensive border controls in for the past year.
“Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, they tell us they want to take control of their borders, but the one time it actually mattered, and they needed to take control of our borders to protect us, they failed.
“I would urge the Government to look at a comprehensive policy, not just the hotspots, because remember, there will be areas or countries across the world where there are mutations which haven’t been identified yet because they don’t have the same level of scientific ability.”
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster said a four-nations approach to the issue was being taken, while the Welsh Government said it expects to discuss the plans with Westminster.
In Scotland, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the Scottish Government would “go at least as far” as England in enhancing quarantine arrangements.
In other developments:
– The Archbishops of Canterbury and York urged people to take a moment each day to pause and remember the more than 100,000 people across the UK who have died after contracting Covid-19.
– Bereavement support charities called for more help, asking for the £500 million allocated to mental health in England to be used to support those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic.
– AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot predicted the UK will have vaccinated “maybe 28 or 30 million people” by March and will hit the target to administer jabs to the top four priority groups by mid-February.
– Professor Calum Semple, who sits on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said there could be another 50,000 deaths from coronavirus before the pandemic “burns out”.
At Tuesday evening’s press conference, Mr Johnson said that “in the course of the next few days and weeks” he will be sending out more details as to how and when lockdown restrictions can be eased.
A source told the Daily Mail that the Government was “beginning to look at what the metrics and criteria will be when we are ready to start thinking about unlocking”.
It comes amid pressure on Mr Johnson from his backbenches to outline a roadmap out of lockdown.
The Covid Recovery Group – made up of lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs – has said the Government should begin unlocking from early March, when vaccinations for the most vulnerable have taken effect.