Since the pandemic began, border closures have been suggested as the only solution that would enable governments to get control of infection rates. In the UK a policy of full border closure has not been advocated by anyone of significance, as has happened in countries like Australia. This isn’t to say UK politicians haven’t toyed with the idea. Keir Starmer said it was “because of [Boris Johnson’s] indecision that our borders stayed open”, when the planned easing of restrictions on 21 June was delayed.

Such arguments are misguided. It is both more humane and more effective to provide regular testing and mass vaccination and to ensure that those who need to self-isolate are financially supported and protected from dismissal. It’s important to distinguish between temporary travel restrictions, such as mandatory quarantines and pre- and post-flight tests for new arrivals, and border controls in general. Whilst the former might be justified in limited circumstances despite coming with their own costs, it is a sleight of hand to treat these as justifications for the larger, violent system of immigration controls. 

That said, existing temporary measures have a disproportionate, negative impact on migrants. Labour can and should demand steps to mitigate their costs as part of a bold and comprehensive vision for recovery.

The three most obvious border-related issues since lockdown easing are the changes to red/amber/green coding for countries, the lack of support for those in quarantine or isolation, and the rules on border crossings.

Travellers from ‘green list’ countries require proof of a negative Covid test three days before their departure to the UK and must take a PCR test within two days of arrival, irrespective of vaccination status. If they test negative, they need not go into quarantine. All unvaccinated adults from ‘amber list’ countries must undertake a ten-day quarantine and have three tests: one pre-departure and two post-arrival. Amber list arrivals who have been fully vaccinated in the UK, US, or EU, plus accompanying under-18s, instead follow the same rules as green list arrivals. All ‘red list’ arrivals must go into a ten-day quarantine in a managed hotel.

These lists are ostensibly based on levels of risk of Covid infection. However, the changes to the lists create uncertainty for travellers and are often less-than-transparent in their rationale. Indeed, it is easy to cynically ask if they are based on where Cabinet members might want to go on holiday. The fact that most red and amber countries are in the Global South likewise makes one wonder how much the lists have to do with the expected arrivals’ ethnicity.

Since all arrivals from red countries and unvaccinated arrivals from amber countries have mandatory hotel quarantines, the lack of support for those in quarantine becomes even more significant. The current cost for the ten-day hotel quarantine period is £2,285 per solo adult, with additional charges for those sharing a room. Such costs mainly affect not tourists, but rather those who normally live in the UK. This includes migrant workers who spent the pandemic with their families abroad to save money or to care for a relative, but now need to return to their jobs in the UK, only to find themselves stuck. Unsurprisingly, the hotel quarantine rules are now facing a legal challenge.

This brings us to pandemic-related issues arising from border controls in general. The Government continues to block ‘irregular’ Channel crossings. Doing so cuts off safe migration routes for people displaced by war or fleeing persecution. This issue has become even more pressing in light of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and resulting humanitarian crisis. Many displaced persons end up languishing in campsites, placing them at risk of further displacement through forcible closures, as well as infection because of unsanitary living conditions. 

The rhetoric of ‘securing our borders’ acquires an extra significance in the context of the hostile environment. The pandemic has given politicians a further opportunity to present border controls as a source of protection, invoking the old, xenophobic trope of the disease-bringing foreigner.

Politicians might equate stronger borders with better protection against the virus. In truth, the infrastructure for border control itself creates conditions for transmission. Immigration detention centres like Harmondsworth, Brook House, and Colnbrook have experienced Covid outbreaks because they keep so many people locked up together. On 11 August, 7 people (down from the intended 90, following protests and a legal challenge) were deported on a charter flight to Jamaica despite several detainees at the removal centre testing positive for Covid.

The ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) condition imposed on many migrants with and without visas or leave to remain denies them access to the social safety net. According to a report by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), migrants without such safety net access are 52% more likely to find it impossible for either themselves or a member of their household to isolate safely at home. 

Similarly, Hostile Environment policies create restrictions on NHS access via, for example, healthcare charges and data-sharing between the NHS Trusts and the Home Office. This deters migrants from seeking medical attention should they catch Covid and develop severe symptoms. This is especially concerning because migrants are overrepresented in industries where people have continued to work throughout the pandemic, meaning they face a higher risk of exposure.

All new arrivals in hotel quarantine should receive adequate financial support and regular testing during the quarantine period can help secure early release. All workers in self-isolation or state quarantine should be entitled to full pay to ensure they can still eat and pay their rent and bills whilst isolating. Those arriving on visas tied to jobs should receive additional protections to ensure they are not forced to choose between complying with quarantine and losing their job. For instance, employers should face penalties for encouraging employees to start work before their isolation period has ended.

Instead of resorting to dog whistles about borders, Labour must have the courage to put forward a vision for recovery that puts all working-class people first.

Dan Davison is an activist for Labour Campaign for Free Movement.