Coronavirus: the plans on Boris Johnson’s desk for Britain’s borders

Cabinet split as PM weighs up options ahead of announcement tomorrow

A passenger pushes her bags through Heathrow Airport
(Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Government officials are nervously awaiting an announcement from Boris Johnson about tighter border controls amid a cabinet split over what restrictions to introduce.

As the prime minister mulls the various options on the table, insiders are becoming “privately critical of how long it has taken to come up with a viable policy”, says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham.

A final decision will be made at a meeting of the Michael Gove-chaired Covid-O Committee that, for “some reason that no one has been able to explain”, will be held of Tuesday rather than today - “meaning an extra day for thousands more arrivals into the country”, Wickham adds.

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On the agenda

With the UK battling to contain outbreaks of new strains of the coronavirus, experts are warning that time is of the essence in making a decision on tighter border controls.

According to The Sunday Times, Johnson is set to come down in favour of banning “foreign passport-holders from countries where the coronavirus is mutating from entering Britain”.

As the paper notes, the move would mark the “first outright block on certain passport-holders in recent history”, with extensions of the travel ban imposed on South Africa, South American countries and Portugal earlier this month after new strains of Covid were detected in the regions.

Fears have been raised that arrivals from high-risk countries could fly via connecting airports in order to bypass the ban.

But proponents of the plan have suggested that as an additional safeguard, new arrivals could “be met at point of entry and escorted to isolation hotels, where they will have to stay at their own expense”, the paper reports.

The proposals for mandatory quarantine have caused a rift in the cabinet, with “ministers divided on whether it should be imposed on all passengers or only those arriving from countries with new strains of Covid-19”, says the Financial Times.

The Covid-O Committee is reportedly expected to make a final decision tomorrow on whether to put an outright ban on countries where new strains are discovered, as well as “when and how to introduce hotel quarantine”.

Government officials told the FT that Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Home Secretary Priti Patel are on the side of putting all arrivals into hotel quarantine. According to political news site Guido Fawkes, Patel told a Zoom meeting of Conservative Party supporters last week that she had been privately pushing since March last year for borders to be shut.

Amid rising support for the hotel quarantine plan, Rishi Sunak is also “understood to have concluded that the economic cost of the move is outweighed by the risks of the present travel restrictions”, The Times report.

The chancellor usually makes the case for “less draconian measures”, notes Politico’s Wickham, who suggests that “a cynic would wonder if he’s seen how the PM has moved since the discovery of the new variants and has worked out which way the wind is blowing”.

Hancock, Patel and Sunak are reportedly up against the likes of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who is said to be a leading advocate for more selective quarantining.

Meanwhile, Johnson has yet to confirm which side will get his backing.

An unnamed cabinet minister told the FT that “the prime minister does not want to lose the progress we’ve made with vaccination, but I don’t think he’s fully made up his mind yet on whether to go with a blanket quarantine”.

Squaring the logistics

If the quarantine advocates get their way, the question of which and how many hotel rooms will be available to house new arrivals poses another challenge.

Government sources told The Telegraph that the region around Heathrow Airport is home to around 10,000 hotel rooms, which as the paper notes “is approximately the number of people arriving in Britain via the airport every day”.

Along with the evident shortfall of rooms available, the issue of who should foot the hefty bill for putting up so many people remains to be resolved. Ministers could decide that “arrivals must pay for their own quarantine hotel rooms, significantly increasing the cost of travelling to the UK”, The Telegraph suggests.

Another option on the table is to temporarily ban all flights into the country - an extreme move that Israel is implementing from tonight. However, a government official told Politico’s Wickham that the UK was unlikely to follow suit, owing to issues such as “travel to and from Ireland, as well as damage to the economy”.

Tracking arrivals via their phone GPS to ensure they are quarantining has also been suggested, but “doesn’t seem imminent”, Wickham adds.

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.