Tuesday 15 June 2021 / 9:45 AM Coronavirus / Home Affairs / Nick Thomas-Symonds

Full text of Nick Thomas-Symonds speech on government failure to secure our borders against Covid


Good morning everyone.

I know people across the country will be hurting this morning.

For many – the hope of reopening on 21 June - was the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel we have all travelled through – together – for the past 14 months.

Freedoms we have missed for so long, seemed within our grasp.

Families looking forward to big get-togethers, celebrating milestones; birthdays, children being born.

Pubs and restaurants desperate to open up properly again.

Friends planning group holidays.

Our town and city centres bustling with workers.

Concerts, sports stadiums, theatres, and festivals filling up.

But last night’s announcement dashed those hopes.

“Freedom Day” was a promise made by the UK government – and let’s be absolutely clear – the responsibility for breaking that promise lies squarely with Conservative Ministers.

The economic cost of this failure for people and businesses up and down the country will be enormous.

U.K. Hospitality say a delay of a month would cost their sector £3bn in sales, with warnings that 200,000 jobs in the sector could go.

5,000 gigs are set to be cancelled – at a cost of £500m.

Let me be clear:

  • The impact of what the Prime Minister announced last night is devastating.
  • The delay is happening because a new variant first identified overseas was allowed to take hold in this country.
  • There is one reason and one reason only that this happened: lax border measures by Conservative ministers.

They have allowed the Delta variant, first identified in India to take hold here.

Let’s call it what it is. Let’s put the blame where it should lie.

In this country – it’s the Johnson Variant.

The Prime Minister’s negligence and incompetence, his refusal to take tough decisions have left Britain facing weeks more of restrictions – and yet more uncertainty.

It is a crystal clear metaphor for how Boris Johnson and his government work: they spend so much time posturing and posing over being tough at the borders, yet when it was a matter of keeping our country safe and the variants out, they failed.

People across the country have every right to be angry about being let down so badly.

We are an island country. Like New Zealand and Australia, our border protections should have been one of our natural strengths throughout this pandemic.

Instead, it has been one of our greatest weaknesses.

The Prime Minister apparently says his political hero is the Mayor from Jaws – keeping the beaches open while swimmers were getting attacked.

Well British people were attacked in their thousands.

What we needed in our Prime Minister was a different character from Jaws: a Martin Brody figure: Eyes on the shark, doing everything to keep people safe.

Everyone knows that managing the pandemic is a huge challenge for Governments across the world – the British public can forgive mistakes.

But what is unforgivable is making the same mistakes – time and time again – putting the health and prosperity of the British people at risk.

Throughout this pandemic, Labour has worked to put the national interest first.

Our priorities are the priorities of the British people: saving lives, protecting livelihoods and helping our NHS.

The Government’s challenge was to protect the progress of the vaccine in the race with the virus.

Thanks to the efforts of the British people, scientists and our amazing NHS—the vaccine has given us a head start.

But Boris Johnson’s bumbling actions have squandered the hard work of others.

He and he alone has allowed the virus to catch up and take the lead.

As a constructive opposition, we have supported – and pushed for improvements – in the furlough scheme and public health messaging.

Yet government negligence has resulted in the UK having the worst death toll in Europe.

Their decisions have led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

The delays in implementing the second and third national lockdowns were against scientific advice and against calls made by the Labour Party.

Now we have seen unforgivable recklessness from the Conservatives on our border protections.

I have, today, published a dossier – outlining the grave errors Conservative Ministers have made in protecting our borders. It is too late to undo the damage done already. But we must do everything we can to ensure that this is the final delay. Today, the Labour Party will be forcing a vote in Parliament on securing our borders.

We want the Government to:

  1. Scrap the Amber List and move it into the Red List with a proper hotel quarantine system.
  2. Continue to have that limited Green List that can grow safely over time
  3. Work with international partners to introduce a universal, worldwide, standardised International Vaccine Passport.
  4. And, introduce the long-awaited sector support deal for the aviation sector.

For months it has been clear that the key threat in our fight against Covid, was variants.

We saw the rapid devastation the Kent variant caused with Christmas plans cancelled.

That is why the Labour Party has been campaigning so hard for a stricter border policy.

I stood in the House of Commons – at the start of the year – warning the Home Secretary that the Government’s half-baked hotel quarantine system would leave us open to variants.

Keir Starmer demanded that the Prime Minister act.

We forced a vote on 1 February – that would have introduced a comprehensive hotel quarantine system, effectively placing – India – and all countries – on a Red List.

Not because we wanted to stop travel, but because we wanted to protect the gains of the British people.

It was tough politically and a message many didn’t want to hear.

But we knew it was necessary to keep variants out.

The SAGE advice showed it was the only measure that would work. The Government’s chief scientific adviser said: “You’ve got to go hard, early and broader if you’re going to get on top of this. Waiting and watching simply doesn’t work.”

Yet the Government ignored the warnings time and again.

They promised the country ‘some of the toughest border measures in the world’

They delivered an utter shambles.

1.59 million people flew into the U.K. between 6 January, when the third national lockdown in England began, to the end of April. Only around a tiny percentage of those underwent hotel quarantine. That is negligent.

In April came – perhaps – the most damaging moment of all.

Cases were – tragically – rocketing in parts of Asia.

Even if the Government refused to introduce comprehensive hotel quarantine – it was clear that more countries needed to be added to the Red List.

Pakistan and Bangladesh were added on 9 April.

Yet the Prime Minister waited 14-days to add India.

Those 14-days have resulted in delays to our freedoms, untold damage to our economy and risks to thousands of jobs.

Civil Aviation Authority figures suggest that at least 20,000 passengers who could have been infected with the Delta variant arrived from India between 2 and 23 April – that is a staggering number.

It was unbelievably reckless that on his list of priorities Boris Johnson put having his photograph taken with Prime Minister Modi ahead of protecting the British people.

Nobody is blaming people who travelled when they were permitted to do so; the blame lies with the Prime Minister for his unjustifiable delay.
It was a fortnight of failure and we are all suffering the consequences.

Even as we speak – there are countries who have big numbers of Delta variant cases – on the Amber List, which is proven not to work in stopping infections reaching the UK.

Thailand and Vietnam are on the Amber List – despite having rocketing cases – and potentially yet another new variant which has already entered the country.

And there are thousands more on flights coming and going from holiday destinations across the world.

History – disastrously – repeating itself.

It has not just been the failure to protect our borders that brought us to this place.

The UK Government has – again – failed to clamp down on community transmissions of the Delta variant.

The lessons from the past were there for all to see. Labour called for the UK government to go ‘hell for leather’ on vaccinating people in hot spot areas and ramping up testing.

But they were too slow to act – and failed to grasp the threat from the Delta variant.

We also know that UK government ministers completely failed to understand that for many people catching Covid comes with desperate financial concerns.

For over a year we have warned that without proper financial support to self-isolate, many people are put in the terrible position of choosing between paying their bills or staying at home to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Nobody should be forced to choose doing the right thing by society and the right thing for their family.

That is why we urgently need to have in place a proper sick pay and support for isolation.

Without doing this, we are leaving yet another door open for variants to spread.

It’s classic Conservative short-term thinking. A false economy. Trying to save money, whilst refusing to do what is necessary to slam the door on the virus.

Government mistakes of this magnitude have huge consequences – and those who suffer must not be made to stand alone.

Businesses face a ‘perfect summer storm’ – as the end of government support packages loom large, just as restrictions are extended.

So the Ministers must make good their promises to the people they have let down so badly.

They must now outline, and ensure, that financial support will be available for businesses in the challenging weeks and months ahead – these businesses must not be made to suffer because of the Government’s poor handling of our borders and failure to contain the new variant. The cost of Government failure cannot be lost jobs and business closures.

It is – also – clear that the end of this crisis is far from close for our aviation and travel sectors.  These are core pillars of the British economy – yet they have not been given the tailored support they so clearly need.

The long-promised sector support deal – underpinned by vital environmental and employment protections – must be delivered without delay.

The Prime Minister owes an apology to the British people.  He should change the habit of a lifetime and take personal responsibility for his failure of leadership.

But more than that – his government owes the country a commitment to learn from their mistakes.

That means ministers must do everything possible to prevent a further delay come July.

Labour has a plan to help secure that date, which includes:

  • Scrapping the Amber List today – bring clarity to our travel system;
  • Get support in place so that Border Force and our airports end the mixing of passengers from different categories of countries and the hours of waiting at arrival halls;
  • Introduce an effective policy for addressing community transmissions – proper sick pay and support for isolation, faster surge testing and vaccination;
  • Show some leadership on driving forward an international vaccine passport;
  • Step up global efforts on vaccines, because ultimately nobody is safe until we have defeated this virus everywhere. The G7 was a vital opportunity to deliver a clear and fully funded plan to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022 – yet again an opportunity Boris Johnson squandered.

We all want this nightmare to end as soon as possible, but wishing it away will not work.

Further restrictions are now necessary – but this was far from inevitable.

The extraordinary sacrifices of the British people – and brilliance of the NHS and our scientists – have put the finish line in sight.

That has been pushed back.

But I know the British people will again rise to the challenge.

The question now is whether Boris Johnson and his government will – at long last – do the same.