Government officials may not have any idea how many people with coronavirus could come into the country once quarantine rules are lifted, MPs have heard.
Commons Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper said it was “quite baffling” that senior Home Office civil servants were not able to confirm whether any assessments on estimated numbers had been carried out ahead of an anticipated relaxation of travel restrictions.
The department’s new permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft and second permanent secretary Shona Dunn were questioned by MPs on Wednesday about efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Asked whether anyone at the Home Office had asked for an estimated number of people with Covid-19 who might arrive in the UK from different countries if quarantine regulations were lifted, Dunn said: “I do not believe that anyone has asked for that number to be pinned down given the range of uncertainties that are being dealt with,” but added she would confirm that after the committee hearing.
Cooper responded: “I find that quite baffling.”
The questions came after the committee had repeatedly asked the department for evidence of advice it received before making a decision on 13 March to scrap guidance for people to self-isolate for 14 days when they arrived in the country – 10 days before the UK went into lockdown.
Dunn insisted the decision was informed by scientific advice provided by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and “underpinned” by discussions the department’s chief scientific adviser Professor John Aston had as a member of the group.
She added: “Senior officials involved in that decision and ministers will have had access to all of the advice from and to Sage at that point.”
But Cooper said: “In all of the Sage minutes there’s no evidence that there was any discussion of this at all.
“I have a real concern about this because we have been pursuing these questions for some time, and at the moment we can still see no evidence that there was any scientific advice sought in the run-up to the decision on 13 March to lift self-isolation guidance at a time when there was still a very high prevalence in Italy, still a very high prevalence in Spain, still a lot of flights still coming into the country from Italy and Spain.”
Asked whether the department asked for an estimate of the number of people coming into the country with Covid-19 at that time, Dunn replied: “We have never had, to the best of my knowledge, a number, an absolute number, estimate.”
She said an estimated figure of 0.5% which the department had previously cited, which compares the prevalence of the virus in certain countries to that in the UK, was used instead of an “absolute number” because it took into account “the level of uncertainty on both sides of that equation”.
Cooper said: “I have to say it’s really, really baffling as to why you wouldn’t ask for that information even if you then weighed it up in the balance of other information. I just find it really odd that the Home Office isn’t seeking crucial evidence like this.
“We want some accurate information on the scientific advice that was given around the border decisions. We have asked these questions repeatedly.
“If you cannot tell us the answers we will just have to assume that you had no scientific evidence behind your decision to lift the isolation restrictions on March 13.
“We will also have to assume that you did not commission any information on the number of people likely to be coming into the country either in March or in June who have Covid-19 unless you tell us otherwise, because we’ve circled these questions for a long time and not got any answers.”
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?