The government has gone to extreme lengths to close our borders to refugees and people seeking work, yet has left them wide open to Covid-19.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th May 2021
Once again, through gross neglect, the government is in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Its astonishing dithering over the Indian variant of Covid-19 sustains its unbroken record of incompetence and procrastination.
Boris Johnson’s government delayed the inclusion of India on the government’s red list even after nations with lesser rates of infection were listed, perhaps so that he could proceed with his planned visit to secure the Indian trade deal that would prove Brexit is working. Again, there was a crucial fortnight in which the government could have acted but didn’t. The result is that we now face a possible third wave of infection.
During the first three months of the pandemic – from 1 January until lockdown on 23 March last year, 18 million people arrived in the UK from abroad. But only 273 of them were obliged to quarantine. By contrast, across the 12 months to March 2020, 23,075 people were thrown into immigration detention centres: prisons for people who have not been convicted of any crime but are suspected of entering – or remaining in – the country without the correct paperwork. Astonishingly and incomprehensibly, on 13 March 2020 the government dropped any obligation on passengers arriving in this country to self-isolate. As a result, we know that on 31 March 2020, a week into lockdown, there were 895 people in detention and none in official quarantine.
Only on 8 June was quarantine reintroduced, and even then the system was so leaky and ill-enforced that it might as well not have existed. While other nations imposed strict border measures from the outset, preventing widespread infection, an analysis by the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium discovered that, as of 22 May 2020, the virus had been introduced to the UK by travellers on at least 1,300 occasions.
Yet during this period of extreme latitude towards the virus, the Home Office has ramped up its regime of cruelty and paranoia, in the name of securing our borders against the terrifying threat of people who might not have the right visa. During the first wave of the pandemic, the government pushed its new immigration bill through parliament, to “end free movement” and introduce its points-based system, modelled on the vicious Australian scheme. One of the consequences of the government’s new rules has been to exclude vital frontline workers who might have helped to manage the virus.
As Covid-19 raged, the Home Office considered ever more extreme and bizarre measures to deter the small number of people attempting to cross the Channel in boats: new radar systems, walls and nets across the sea, wave machines and any other fantastical scheme Priti Patel’s civil servants could conjure up as they sought to satisfy the escalating demands of their boss.
A year into the pandemic, border controls against the virus remained a total farce. When, in February, the government at last introduced its red list to prevent new variants from arriving, the Home Office failed to brief immigration officials on what their new duties were or how they should be discharged. As a result, the border remained as watertight as a colander.
At the same time, victims of torture who had the temerity to seek asylum in this country were thrown indefinitely into solitary confinement – because the correct way to treat torture is with torture. In mid-April this year, as visitors from India continued to enter the country without quarantining, Patel launched her New Plan for Immigration, which is one long exercise in catch-22 logic, designed to make it almost impossible for refugees to secure asylum here. She again promoted her favourite fantasy: dispatching refugees to an imaginary offshore prison, an idea that appears to have been inspired by the sadistic Australian penal colonies of Nauru and Manus.
Since Brexit, border security guards have been catching EU citizens and throwing some of them, arbitrarily and to their great distress, into the detention centres usually populated by travellers from poorer nations. In some cases they appear to have been legally entitled to travel here, but no one in the government seems to care. I guess the one thing you can say for the Home Office under Priti Patel is that it is becoming an equal-opportunities oppressor.
The detention centres, incidentally – chaotic, overcrowded and insanitary – have been afflicted by repeated outbreaks of Covid-19. Staff moving in and out of them are likely to have helped spread the virus through the wider community. It wouldn’t be surprising if the net impact of the UK’s border controls had been to broadcast the disease.
While the Indian variant was merrily crossing our borders, Patel was talking to the Indian government. But not about the virus. She was preparing her new Migration and Mobility partnership agreement with India, which was launched with a fanfare and photo-op on 4 May. This introduces no new measures to prevent infection. Instead it creates a firewall of a different kind: between “young professionals”, who are generally from more privileged backgrounds, with offers of lucrative jobs or funded positions here, and the riffraff who might wish to tend to our elderly, clean our toilets or perform other undervalued tasks – against whom, the new partnership ensures, the hounds of hell will be unleashed.
All these extreme measures are taken with a nod to the rightwing press, most of which is owned by billionaires: Rupert Murdoch, Frederick Barclay and Jonathan Harmsworth (Lord Rothermere). While these men cross our borders freely, moving between their various residences, their papers claim to be deeply affronted by the thought that other people might enjoy the same right. Yet they also seem intensely relaxed about the free movement of the virus: in fact these newspapers have contained repeated demands for greater leeway for UK residents to travel abroad and return without quarantine.
So here we are, a nation persecuting innocent visitors and its essential labour force, imprisoning refugees fleeing from imprisonment, and welcoming the virus with open arms.