Boris Johnson and Priti Patel were embroiled in a row over closing Britain’s borders as the Prime Minister refused a plea from the Home Secretary to stop flights to the UK.
Ms Patel tried to build a coalition of senior Cabinet ministers to put the case to Downing Street, only for Number 10 to state publicly that there were “no plans” to stop flights from countries blighted by coronavirus, including Iran and the US.
Mr Johnson was angry that Home Office discussions of a border lockdown – disclosed in The Telegraph – had been made public, according to Whitehall sources.
Ms Patel is understood to have wanted to raise the issue in one of the daily meetings of Cabinet sub-committees, arguing that Border Force, overseen by the Home Office, would be able to use existing immigration rules to stop flights on the basis that they would not be “conducive to the public good”.
The Home Secretary was concerned that flights from coronavirus hotspots including Tehran, New York, Rome and Beijing were still being allowed to land in the UK.
Although visitors arriving from such countries are asked to self-isolate for 14 days when they arrive in Britain, there is no way of checking they are doing so and passengers are trusted to do the right thing. Britain does not screen passengers for symptoms of coronavirus.
Senior Cabinet ministers were understood to have split over the issue when it was initially raised in Government.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is among ministers who expressed reservations in the past about flights arriving from Iran and other countries.
Mr Johnson, however, came down firmly on the side of Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, who warned that stopping flights would mean an end to the ongoing repatriations of British tourists, who have all been told to come home.
Foreign Office sources suggested banning flights would be a “purely symbolic” measure with a “significant” downside attached, including Britons “trapped” abroad.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, are understood to have agreed with Mr Raab, with both ministers reluctant to block repatriations.
Ms Patel is also understood to have been warned about doing unnecessary damage to the airline industry when the scientific advice did not support a ban. Government scientific advisers had told the Prime Minister that banning flights would have no significant impact on the spread of the virus.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman, asked about the possibility of a flight ban on Thursday, said there were “no plans” to do so.
He added: “The level of inward travel into the UK has fallen greatly since the outbreak of the virus and means transport providers have reduced services.”
Arrivals at UK airports have fallen five-fold, from 500,000 to 100,000 a day, and sources said there had been a further fall-off in the last 24 hours, making it “less urgent” for now. It is understood medical advice will be reviewed regularly and a decision on closing airports could change if necessary.
Ms Patel is understood to have accepted that there should be no flight ban unless advice from medical experts changes and recommends one.
Last month, the Home Secretary came under pressure following the resignation of the Home Office’s top civil servant, who accused her of bullying staff. Sir Philip Rutnam plans to sue the Government for constructive dismissal.
Britain’s open borders to flights contrasts with the EU’s decision last week to ban virtually all travellers from outside the bloc for 30 days.
Government scientific advisers estimate that some 500 cases of coronavirus can be linked directly to foreign nationals arriving in the UK.
Some non-EU countries, such as India and Kazakhstan, stopped Iran Air flights earlier this month, while the US extended its EU travel ban to the UK and Ireland 10 days ago.
In that time, the US has seen a surge in coronavirus cases to nearly 50,000, with more than 600 deaths. On Tuesday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the country could become the new centre of the global coronavirus pandemic.