COMPUTER says no. We’ve all been there, faced with the idiocy of online officialdom; but few of us have been running for our lives at the time. According to the BBC, Home Office computers told one Ukrainian refugee family to go to Kyiv to get biometric checks for their visa application. Perhaps the Home Office is planning its own no-fly zone.

Several hundred Ukrainian refugees destined for Britain were reportedly turned away at Calais. Computer said they had to travel to Brussels or Paris to get their documentation checked. That's if they have any documentation. Refugees under fire often fail to get their records in order. Many don't even have computers. Most don't know English.

At the time of writing, 500 or so Ukrainian refugees have been permitted to enter the UK. That's out of approaching two million who have fled Vladimir Putin's murderers in the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. This is a national disgrace. Front-line countries like Poland have accepted hundreds of thousands without visas and without documents. Yet, the Polish and Hungarian governments have far more reason to be cautious about inadvertently admitting terrorists, criminals and Russian assassins. The refugees get free transport, clothing and SIM cards.

Read more: Ukraine is the sum of all fears as Putin risks all-out nuclear war

The UK's reputation for hostility to foreigners was bad enough before this exercise in bureaucratic incompetence, underpinned as it is by that lingering suspicion of foreigners that seems to infect members of the British Conservative Party and anyone connected with it. Barring Ukrainians at Calais is a gift to France, still smarting from media accusations that they let boat people die in the English Channel. Hah! they say: Regardez les Anglais xenophobique: they are even turning away white people.

This refugee repression, let's call it what it is, has also presented an easy target for Nicola Sturgeon. She never loses an opportunity to condemn the heartless “Toaries” for being hostile to asylum seekers even though Scotland's record is scarcely pristine. Scottish local authorities like Glasgow City Council started banning new asylum seekers last year.

I don't actually believe that Boris Johnson is motivated by xenophobia any more than Ms Sturgeon, certainly not when Europeans are involved. This is the same Boris Johnson who invited some three million Hong Kong citizens to come to live in Britain. He insists that he expects 200,000 Ukrainians to come to the UK.

Getting them here was supposed to be straightforward once restrictions were relaxed to allow all relatives and dependents to arrive, and also admit Ukrainians who lack family ties. After all, there are a lot of Ukrainians living and working here already. Last year, two-thirds of UK seasonal work visas went to Ukrainians. They are a key part of the UK labour force.

Moreover, there is currently a massive labour shortage in precisely the areas for which many Ukrainians have appropriate skills: social care, health, agriculture, haulage, warehousing. But the idea that the Ukrainian diaspora would take up the reins and spontaneously organise a kind of UK refugee corridor was an administrative cop-out.

Deep in the bowels of the Home Office there lingers a fear that the Daily Mail will attack them if they allow uncontrolled immigration so soon after leaving the European Union ostensibly to end it. Take back control and all that. But attitudes to migrants have changed, even in the tabloid world. There is a deep well of public sympathy for Ukrainian refugees. Nigel Farage knows the way the wind is blowing. He is not standing in front of posters of people fleeing Kyiv saying “Breaking Point”. His all-purpose populist party has turned to campaigning against net zero.

The Home Office is undoubtedly suffering from overstretch. Its 30,000 staff have scarcely recovered from their dismal performance during the Afghanistan crisis, and are still trying to disperse 20,000 refugees from the Taliban. Officials wonder how they can let Ukrainian refugees in without visas and still bar non-white refugees. But Home Office problems run deeper.

The Labour Home Secretary John Reid first condemned it as “not fit for purpose” in 2006 but it was dysfunctional long before that. The Windrush Scandal, when hundreds of Commonwealth citizens were sent home decades after they had settled here, was only the most acute manifestation of institutional schizophrenia.

Read more: Ukraine’s President and his people are giving the West a true lesson in bravery

This was the same Home Office that estimated fewer than 13,000 would come to Britain after the enlargement of the European Union in 2004. In the event, 20 times that number arrived annually. Ever since it has been veering between the “hostile environment” approach under Theresa May to its reckless passivity over tens of thousands of migrants crossing the world's busiest shipping lane in rubber boats.

Priti Patel is out of her depth and has been for most of her time in office. She says Home Office staff are being flown across Europe “so we can fast-track and speed up applications.” Perhaps she hasn't noticed, but refugees are trying to go the other way. She also created an imaginary visa application centre at Calais, until challenged to say exactly where it was located. It is now rumoured to be in Lille 75 miles away..

In 2020, Ms Patel was accused of bullying her Permanent Secretary, Philip Rutnam. That was only resolved after he was paid an eye-watering sum not to sue. Ms Patel's senior staff, and civil service unions, have been at war with her ever since. They have no interest in making anything work while she is in charge. Mr Johnson should have moved Ms Patel two years ago. She is clearly divisive, erratic and difficult to work with. Presumably the PM did not want to lower his Cabinet quotient of Bame women.

But we are where we are. Britain's only option now is to throw open the doors to visa-free travel. The paperwork can be done later. The idea that British people are going to fear or cold-shoulder Ukrainian women and children (the men are mostly staying to fight) is offensive and wrong. There is little we can do to stop Putin's bombing right now, but we can and must give refuge to those fleeing it.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald