‘This country has not only left the European Union but on January 1 we will take back full control of our money, our borders and our laws,’ said Boris Johnson in October last year. The transition period is now over; we are out of the single market and customs union, which means freedom of movement of people is at an end. The UK has total control over its borders (other than the one on the island of Ireland, but let’s not go there today). So it is worth asking why the government is choosing not to exercise this right in anything approaching an appropriate manner at present, particularly when such a power is obviously of use given the harrowing Covid situation.
To start at the lowest possible level here, as it stands today, new arrivals into the UK are often not being tested in any way when they land in the country. Not even temperature checks, never mind actual Covid tests. This makes Britain a true outlier in the international stakes on this front, and certainly not in a good way. Everywhere else in the western world one can expect some sort of checks when you arrive in the country; the UK seems still stuck in January 2020 in this key area.
Jumping up a tier, one has to wonder why the borders are open at all at present. We have locked down the entire nation, with no one allowed to leave their house for any non-essential reason, and international travel is severely restricted. All but four EU countries have banned UK travellers from entering their domains off the back of the new Covid strain. Why then have we not just shut the borders for now completely? And to be clear, I’m a liberal, particularly when it comes to immigration policy. I’d love to live in a world in which freedom of movement could exist for everyone, everywhere (while appreciating that this is completely impossible in the early 21st century for more reasons that space will allow for here). If even I’m thinking ‘Close the borders, now!’, I can only imagine what those much further to the right of me on this topic, i.e. most people in Great Britain, are thinking.
The UK's border policy throughout the Covid crisis has followed the same pattern of U-turns that have become a signature of this government. Back in May, Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said a negative airport test was no good because it wouldn’t catch someone who had the virus but was yet to be symptomatic. This view held until November, when there was a partial U-turn: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps unveiled his ‘test to release’ policy, which was built around letting people cut their quarantine period if they tested negative for Covid-19. Finally, we arrive at January 2021 and the full U-turn: tests are expected to be implemented at all entry posts into the UK. Only, as of writing, it’s still unclear when exactly this policy will be implemented. It’s another vaunted ‘Announcement Soon’ moment for this government.
Of all the Covid responses, it is on borders that the government has failed most decisively. Given that control of people coming in and out of the country was a major plank in the whole supposed appeal of the Boris era Tory party, this is fairly shameful. It makes a mockery of the desire to take back control of our borders – as if Czech builders were a much greater threat than a deadly virus that has crushed our economy and way of life.
While the desire to begin testing arrivals into the UK is a welcome bit of news from the government, it comes far, far too late into this crisis – testing of all people coming into the country is the least that should be happening. With a full lockdown now underway, as well as full travel bans for UK citizens in place in over 40 countries, it is again worth asking why we are letting visitors in and out of the country at all at the moment.
Of all the things for the Tories to lose support over, being able to control the border after getting the full ability to do so returned, in a time of crisis when even the most liberal among us see the value in shutting shop, would be highly ironic. It is also a bad start to the post-Brexit era – to have taken back control only to find ourselves lumped with a government unable, for whatever reason, to act is a sad state of affairs for the newly independent Great Britain to find itself in.