Priti Patel admits Britain had ‘no technical capability’ to stop Covid at the UK border in early 2020 – after police chief reveals how Matt Hancock gave officers just 16 MINUTES’ notice of new lockdown rules
Former home secretary Dame Priti Patel today admitted there was no ability to stop Covid from arriving in the country through Britain’s borders in early 2020.
The ex-Cabinet minister acknowledged there was ‘no technical capability’ – such as through temperature testing – to restrict the spread of coronavirus via people arriving in the UK at the start of the pandemic.
Appearing before the Covid inquiry, she said of possible border measures in February and March 2020: ‘At that stage the skills and capabilities simply weren’t there.’
Dame Priti was in charge of the Home Office for the duration of the Covid crisis in 2020 and 2021.
She gave evidence to the official probe into the pandemic after a former top police chief revealed how he was given just 16 minutes’ notice of new lockdown rules.
Martin Hewitt, who was chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council during the Covid crisis, described how then health secretary Matt Hancock once sent over new legislation close to midnight.
This was just before it was due to come into force, he told the inquiry.
Former home secretary Dame Priti Patel admitted there was no ability to stop Covid from arriving in the country through Britain’s borders in early 2020
The ex-Cabinet minister acknowledged there was ‘no technical capability’ – such as through temperature testing – to restrict the spread of coronavirus via people arriving in the UK at the start of the pandemic
Former health secretary Matt Hancock was revealed to have once sent over new Covid rules to police chiefs just 16 minutes before they were due to be enforced
Martin Hewitt was chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council during the Covid crisis
In his quizzing of Dame Priti, lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC suggested there was a ‘distinct absence of practical capability to be able to restrict the infection through the border’ in February and March 2020.
‘And secondly there was no sophisticated or effective system already thought about, drawn up and ready to be put into place when the virus emerged,’ he added.
Dame Priti replied: ‘I think that’s absolutely correct and, with that, no technical capability.
‘At that stage the skills and capabilities simply weren’t there.’
The former home secretary also told the inquiry it was ‘fair’ to say there were no sophisticated or developed plans for possible border controls in the face of a pandemic in early 2020.
Asked if she and her Home Office colleagues had to ‘effectively sit down and work out step-by-step what you should do’, she replied: ‘I think that’s fair. I do think that’s fair.’
Dame Priti revealed she was advised the introduction of strict new border measures in early 2020 would not have much impact in preventing the spread of Covid.
‘The advice that I received – and I think was shared widely across Government at the time – showed that it would have a minimum impact in terms of preventing the spread of the virus, in terms of community transmission,’ she said.
‘Importantly I also recall receiving in advice to me, that it would not actually even assist the NHS in terms of preparations, the time they would need in terms of coping (with the pandemic).’
Dame Priti also told the inquiry it became ‘self-evident very early on’ that the Government did not have the ‘capability’ for practical measures, such as being able to ‘heat-test’ people that were coming through the border.
This morning, in his own evidence to the inquiry, Mr Hewitt described how he had to put off enforcing new coronavirus laws because he only received the legislation from Mr Hancock 16 minutes before it should have come into force.
He said: ‘There was a regulation that was going to change at one minute past midnight and we received the regulations signed off by the secretary of state for health and social care at 11.45 – so we had precisely 16 minutes.’
Mr Hewitt said briefing documents must then be worked up translated into Welsh before being shared.
‘But in that particular example where we had 16 minutes I had a conversation and was very clear with the home secretary at the time (Dame Priti ) that we would not be enforcing that regulation on that day and it was going to take us probably… 24/36 hours to actually get to a place where I was confident police officers out there knew what they needed to do,’ he added.
More problems would arise at 7am the following morning when ministers ‘spinning round’ the television and radio studios would be talking about this, Mr Hewitt said.
He would then have to be ‘very clear that would not be enforced immediately because it was unfair to put the officers in a position where they didn’t understand precisely what they were supposed to be doing’.
Baroness Hallett, the inquiry’s chairwoman, criticised legislation giving police the powers to direct people to be tested for Covid and enforce medical directions.
‘That’s an extraordinary power to enact, and I shouldn’t criticise our elected representatives but I can’t see the purpose,’ she said.
‘I see an awful lot of uncertainties, reasonable grounds, whether it’s unpractical, having to have a public health officer. And there are so many reasons why that’s a bad piece of legislation.
‘Again I shouldn’t criticise but I am going to.
‘It’s something we need to get into whether, or when, we have another pandemic, we have on the books ready to go legislation that’s better than this.’
Mr Hewitt said that the powers were never used but agreed with the chairwoman.
‘How on earth one forms a reasonable ground to suggest that somebody has or may be infected with a virus you can’t see seems to me quite a challenge in a practical sense,’ he said.
He also told the inquiry how it was ‘incredibly difficult for even a perfectly law-abiding and committed citizen’ to abide by the at times ‘rapidly’ changing laws.
Then with localised tiering rules coming in, he said different regulations ‘on opposite sides of the same road’ made policing more difficult.
Mr Hewitt said people becoming ‘fed up with the regulations’ sapped ‘away at the morale of the officers who are just trying to do their job in pretty difficult circumstances’.
Dame Priti later made clear to the inquiry that Mr Hancock’s Department for Health and Social Care was responsible for Covid laws.
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