Covid: Top Tory accuses Hancock of ‘demeaning office’ with 10-year prison plans

Sam Blewett and Emma Bowden, PA

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has come under fierce criticism from a senior Tory who said plans to impose 10-year prison sentences on travellers who try to evade coronavirus quarantine rules are “utterly ridiculous”.

Sir Charles Walker, the vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, told Boris Johnson to rein in Cabinet ministers “very, very quickly”, as he also accused the Government of “robbing people of hope”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had defended the “strong action” for UK nationals returning from high-risk destinations who lie about their movements as necessary to prevent new mutations of the virus entering the country.

But he faced criticism for saying it is “too soon” for Britons to book a domestic holiday, and that foreign trips will remain banned until “everybody” has had a coronavirus vaccine.

Mr Hancock announced on Tuesday that people returning to England from 33 “red list” destinations would have to pay £1,750 to quarantine for 10 days in Government-designated hotels.

Those caught lying about their movements could be fined £10,000 or jailed for 10 years under existing anti-forgery legislation, No 10 said.

But critics said the penalties are disproportionate to the offence, with former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption arguing the penalties are more severe than those for some violent or sexual offences.

Sir Charles told Sky News: “Utterly ridiculous thing for the Secretary of State of Health to say. Are we really going to lock people up for 10 years for being dishonest about the fact that they’ve been to Portugal?

“What a stupid thing to say, I mean a really stupid thing to say, that demeans his office and his position around the Cabinet table.”

The senior backbench MP also accused Mr Shapps of making an “extraordinary” and “totally irresponsible” statement on holidays.

“What the Government is doing now is bordering on the very dangerous to be perfectly honest. It is robbing people of hope, it is robbing people of something to look forward to, and it is very, very stupid and very, very short-sighted,” Sir Charles added.

“I don’t hold the Prime Minister responsible for this but I do hold his secretaries of state responsible for this and he needs to rein them in very, very quickly.”

Meanwhile, the former head of the Government legal department, Sir Jonathan Jones, tweeted: “If anyone is EVER sentenced to 10 years for lying on the form, I will eat a face mask. (A clean one, I’m not mad.)”

Former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve said 10-year jail terms were a “mistake” which would never actually be used by the courts.

“The reality is that nobody would get such a sentence anyway, the courts are simply not going to impose it,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“It’s a mistake of the Government to suggest something which is not going to happen.”

However, Mr Shapps said the public would expect strong action if lives are put at risk by people bringing dangerous new variants into the country.

“I do think it is serious if people put others in danger by deliberately misleading and saying that you weren’t in Brazil or South Africa, or one of the red list countries,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“I think the British public would expect pretty strong action because we’re not talking now just about, ‘Oh there’s a lot of coronavirus in that country and you might bring some more of it back when we already have plenty of it here’.

“What we’re talking about now are the mutations, the variants, and that is a different matter, because we don’t want to be in a situation where we later on discover that there’s a problem with vaccines.”

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK
(PA Graphics)

Downing Street said there is no requirement for MPs to vote on the move to impose jail sentences on travellers who flout the rules because they would be convicted under current laws.

“We’re using existing legislation under the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 so there’s no requirement for a vote,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

In other developments:

– Government figures show nearly one in four adults in the UK have received a coronavirus vaccine, after a 411,812 daily rise took the total number of first doses to 13,058,298.

– A further 1,001 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, bringing the official UK death toll to 114,851.

– The Prime Minister said the nation is going “to have to get used to” being revaccinated in the autumn as fresh variants emerge, much like the need for annual boosters against seasonal flu.

– The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef urged wealthy countries to avoid “self-defeating” vaccine strategies.

– Scientists advising the WHO have recommended the use of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine in all adults.

– Using dexamethasone to treat Covid-19 patients could have saved 650,000 lives worldwide, including 12,000 Britons, an Oxford University study suggested.

Covid-19 vaccinations in the UK
(PA Graphics)

In the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Hancock indicated the quarantine measures might be in place until the autumn if vaccine booster jabs are needed in response to coronavirus variants.

He told MPs that 16 hotels have been contracted to provide 4,600 rooms for the quarantine programme, which begins on Monday.

The Scottish Government is going further, requiring all international travellers arriving into Scotland to stay in a quarantine hotel.

No international flights are currently operating to Wales or Northern Ireland, but Stormont’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said it is “crucially important” for the nations to work together to stall the arrival of new and concerning strains from abroad.

Travel trade organisation Abta said requiring passengers to pay for multiple tests once leisure travel is restarted would have “serious cost implications” and “hurt demand”.

A spokeswoman urged ministers to “develop a roadmap to reopen travel”.

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