Comments by Sanwar Ali:
Perhaps because of the nature of the job many UK Border Force and UK visas and Immigration staff are more likely to come into contact with people and catch coronavirus COVID-19 (at least before the "lockdown". There has been criticism of the Government’s response to coronavirus. However, it can be difficult to know what to do. There are also serious health consequences of a “lockdown”. People going out of business or losing their jobs may also face health consequences.
Another issue is the higher proportion of people from BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) groups that die after catching coronavirus. More research needs to be done on this. What percentage of UK visa staff who were ill due to coronavirus are from BAME groups?
According to a report published by The Guardian, nearly 2,000 Border Force and UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) staff displayed coronavirus symptoms between January and April. 1,880 Border Force and UKVI staff were absent from work due to COVID-19 between 1 January and 29 April, representing 12 percent of the combined workforce for both agencies.
Of the nearly 2,000 absentees, 516 Border Force staff and 529 UKVI employees were off sick prior to 23 March, representing a total of 1045 or 7 percent of the workforce, according to The Guardian report. Staff absences reportedly peaked in the week ending 22 March for both agencies, just prior to lockdown measures being implemented.
The figures were reportedly obtained by Labour MP Stephen Doughty in answer to a parliamentary question.
In the first three months of 2020, 23.7 million UK arrivals by air, land and sea were recorded, which includes 18.1 million arrivals by air between 1 January and 23 March. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, apparently told MPs that there was a ‘big influx’ of coronavirus cases from Italy and Spain in early March.
Doughty, a former member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, told The Guardian: “This shocking revelation in answer to my question shows one of the likely impacts of failing to introduce proper measures to protect staff at the border when they were most needed – in the first quarter of the year – when over 23 million British and other travellers entered the UK without proper health checks or formal quarantine.”
“While some of this illness will have undoubtedly been picked up outside of work, the fact Sir Patrick Vallance admitted that we had imported many, many cases, coupled with these figures, suggests that many frontline staff may have been exposed and infected in the course of their work,” Doughty added.
Government failure to act
The Labour MP urged the government to publish the scientific advice it used and explain why they failed to act when introducing preventative measures could have made a huge difference.
It’s understood that two Border Force staff who contracted COVID-19 have died from the disease.
The government’s handling of the public health crisis across the UK has been heavily criticised, with many questioning why more wasn’t done to screen UK arrivals at an earlier stage of the pandemic, especially for passengers arriving from coronavirus hotspots such as Wuhan, China – where the virus outbreak originated – and northern Italy.
According to official data, of the 18.1 million UK arrivals between 1 January and 23 March, just 273 travellers from Wuhan, plus one flight from Japan, were formally quarantined in government-supported isolation facilities.
As of 13 March, 10 days prior to lockdown measures being implemented, the government stopped issuing guidance to people arriving from specific countries – including China and Italy – to self-isolate. Since this date, very little has been done by way of intervention, except for advice distributed using leaflets and displayed on posters.
14-day self-isolation from 8 June
The government has now announced a 14-day self-isolation period for all UK arrivals, which will be enforced as of 8 June. Critics have questioned why such action was not put in place in the early stages of the pandemic.
In addition to nearly 2,000 UKVI and Border Force staff being off sick with COVID-19 symptoms, figures show that within the first four months of 2020, 2,345 personnel across both agencies self-isolated at home because of a family member in their household displaying symptoms of the virus or because the employee themselves was susceptible to infection.
When combined with absentees, 27 percent of Border Force and UKVI staff were out of action due to the disease.
The latest Home Office annual report, published in June 2019, shows that the Border Force employs 8,127 permanent staff and UKVI has 7,422 workers, a total of 15,549 across both agencies.
Answers to the parliamentary question asked by Labour MP Stephen Doughty were answered by Chris Philp, the minister for immigration compliance.
Much of the recent media spotlight concerning coronavirus has been focused on Dominic Cummings, the Chief Adviser to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Cummings has faced a huge public backlash, criticism from government ministers and intense media scrutiny for an apparent breach of COVID-19 lockdown rules. Police have said that the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser ‘may have broken lockdown rules.’
Meanwhile, as part of the government’s phased approach to easing lockdown restrictions, it was announced that friends and family can now gather in groups of up to six people.
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