JUST what is our problem with borders?

The UK Government stands accused once again of endangering British people by lax border control. This time from India, long after it was known that a highly infectious new Covid variant was running rampant there.

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, says Britain’s border control is “a joke” – and he should know since he played fast and loose with the lockdown rules himself.

Dither and delay has been the story of this pandemic. Last year, 18 million travellers, many from stricken countries like Italy, were waved through British airports in the three months before May 6. Talk about closing the stable door. Even people from the epicentre of the disease in Wuhan were reportedly admitted to the UK.

This was arguably the worst dereliction of pandemic duty by Boris Johnson’s Government – well, apart from delaying lockdown, not protecting care homes and making a £39bn bourach of Track and trace. And yes, I know, Nicola Sturgeon made similar mistakes. But she can’t be blamed for UK border policy since it is reserved to Westminster. Strictly speaking, she doesn’t even have the power to close the Scottish border.

It’s not as if we didn’t know that pandemics are turbocharged by travel. Last year’s delay in closing borders was inexcusable. Yet, one year on, the British Government remains pathologically averse to border control. Epidemiologists had been warning about the dangers of the Indian variant, or rather B.1617.2 as we’re supposed to call it, right through March. There was widespread condemnation of Indian premier Narendra Modi’s irresponsibility in allowing religious festivals and political rallies to take place even as bodies were being burned in the streets, and people were being turned away from hospitals. But for some reason the UK Government delayed placing India on the red list until April 23. It then inexplicably gave travellers from India three days' notice to get on a plane before the ban took effect. Not surprisingly, many did. Hence the outbreaks in cities with large Asian populations such as Bolton and Glasgow.

Read more: Who will win the Border war over coronavirus?

Twitter says it was all to do with Boris Johnson and Brexit. So desperate was the PM to win a trade deal with Mr Modi that he kept the borders open to curry favour. It was “profits before people”. Same old Tories, etc. But this doesn’t make much sense. The best way to kill profits stone dead, and wreck the nation’s finances, was to risk another devastating lockdown. Not even Mr Johnson could have been stupid enough to think that a trade deal mattered more than a possible third wave of a deadly virus. Mr Modi was anyway in deep political trouble and in no position to negotiate anything except perhaps his removal from office.

So why did the UK fail to protect British people from this new variant? I’m genuinely at a loss to understand. Bureaucratic inertia? Or did anxiety about racism play a part ?

Some in the Indian press had been claiming that British coverage of the pandemic is laced with a thinly-disguised racial prejudice. Since the days of Empire there has been an inclination to see brown people as carriers of disease – unclean, irresponsible, stupid. This legacy of colonialism is supposed to be embedded in the British psyche.

A family member in protective suit offers flowers during the cremation of a Ca-19 victim at an open crematorium on the outskirts of Bengaluru, Karnataka state, India

A family member in protective suit offers flowers during the cremation of a Ca-19 victim at an open crematorium on the outskirts of Bengaluru, Karnataka state, India

Except that this obviously isn’t about racism, else we’d have banned all brown people tout suite. Mr Johnson – who of course has form here – has been ultra careful to avoid appearing to demonise Indians. Hence his insistence on the variant being called by its scientific name.

But Britain’s history of racism may have something to do with our reluctance to close borders to foreigners, though not in the way polemicists think.

As we saw during Brexit, there’s profound sensitivity about borders, aversion even, that’s deeply embedded in the psychology of British political and academic elites. Borders are bad; free movement is good. Border control is xenophobia – about demonising immigrants and nationalism. Recall the outcry last March when Donald Trump tried to close the border to travellers from the EU. Racist! Populist! Bigot! He is all of those things, of course, but in that instance he was probably erring on the right side. At the time, the WHO had been arguing against travel bans, even from China, and wasn’t. Sometimes you have to close borders, at least to undesirable viruses.

Significantly, it has been non-white academics here who have been the foremost proponents of stricter border control. Nicola Sturgeon’s key Covid adviser, Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University is a dedicated border hawk, and has repeatedly criticised Mr Johnson for not closing them on time. No one would call her racist.

Ms Sridhar even lamented the failure to close the Scottish border to English travellers last summer – which might, she believes, have made it possible to eliminate Covid in Scotland. Few epidemiologists agree. But she has certainly been vindicated in attacking Mr Johnson’s failures of border hygiene.

Ms Sturgeon was of course an arch Remainer and shares the intelligentsia’s aversion to borders – even though she leads a nationalist party that is all about creating new ones. She waves away the prospect of a post-independence border at Gretna as Project Fear. But perhaps she is missing a trick here.

Read more: Sturgeon’s border problem could possibly kill Yes vote stone dead

Boris Johnson’s B.1617.2 fiasco has at least reminded people what borders are for. They are essentially about security: safety from foreign invasion, military or viral. They have a cultural significance also and are essential for national cohesion. You can’t have democracy without borders. But security is paramount.

After decades of peace and good health in Europe, we perhaps lost sight of why borders were there in the first place. National boundaries became associated with right-wing parties: anti-immigration, fear of foreigners. Everyone wanted to be a citizen of the world – until the world turned up with a deadly pandemic.

Perhaps, in future, an English border will not be such a negative for the Yes campaign. Perhaps Scottish voters will no longer see a border as a barrier to participation in the world, but as a necessary condition for engagement with it? At any rate, it seems borders, for now, are back.

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