It was a rough old morning for Michael Gove on Tuesday, who faced a tough line of questioning on BBC Breakfast, only to be similarly grilled with a subsequent interview on ITV rival Good Morning Britain.
The cabinet minister had his first interview of the morning with Dan Walker on BBC Breakfast, who put it to him that one of the reasons there’s been a delay to restrictions lifting in England is down to the government’s slow response in adding India to the “red list” with regards to international travel.
Gove said: “The reality is that we put India on the red list before the delta variant was a variant under investigation, and well before it was a variant of concern. We can only act on the basis of the information we have at the time.”
“I appreciate that,” Dan interjected. “But you did take action over Bangladesh and Pakistan before, as you said, this was a variant of concern. You put those on the red list, and yet those cases were similar to what was going on in India. In fact, India had a higher case point at that time.
“And yet India didn’t go on the red list until 23 April. So, why did you make that judgement about Bangladesh and Pakistan, but not India?”
Gove then insisted that there was a “higher proportion of people coming from Bangladesh and Pakistan [with] a higher positivity rate”, to which Dan responded: “I thought you might say that, so I had a look at the figures, and actually, according to NHS Test And Trace, they don’t support that claim.
“When they look at it, they say, from the period 25 March to 7 April, the positivity rate from Bangladesh was 3.7%, from India it was 5.1%, and from Pakistan it was 6.2%. So actually, those rates were all quite similar, and India was higher than Bangladesh.”
“That delay was two weeks, Mr Gove,” he continued. “And in that time, the suggestion is that 20,000 people potentially arrived in this country, some of whom had the [delta] variant.”
When Dan raised the question of the whether the delay was “linked to this potential trade deal with India”, suggesting the “prime minister’s priority was a potential photo-call, rather than protecting the borders here”, Gove hit back: “Specious nonsense. The prime minister would never put the health of the country at risk in that way.
“People who are pedalling this line are trying to make a political point, I suppose that happens, and aren’t looking at the facts and the timeline that we’ve been discussing. So… what can one say? People will throw all sorts of rubbish like that around. I think the thing is to just shrug ones shoulders and look at the facts.”
“You say ‘the facts and the timeline’,” the host then replied. “But the point I was making to you is that the facts and the timeline suggest India should have been on the red list earlier than it was.”
Gove reiterated: “Of course it’s possible to look back and to reflect on the decisions that were taken at the time and to hope that we had had more information which would have given us a greater degree of insight and knowledge and confidence.
“But as I say, at the time that India was placed on the red list, that was before the delta variant was a variant under investigation, let alone a variant of concern.”
Dan then told the MP he “[didn’t] want to go over the same ground again”, adding: “You’ve tried to answer the questions and our audience will be able to make their minds up about that.”
An hour later, and Gove was back on our screens, this time facing a similar line of questioning from Richard Madeley and Susanna Reid on GMB, with things getting a lot more confrontational this time around.
Susanna began by stating it “feels like we haven’t seen you for a very long time”, and after asking him to promise that 19 July “will be the end of it”, the duo then also questioned the delays in putting India on the “red list”.
“We were too late to shut out what was known at the beginning of April as the India variant, weren’t we?” Susanna asked.
“No, I disagree with that,” Gove began. He then repeated his statement from earlier in the day that India was put on the red list before it was confirmed to be a “variant under investigation” or a “variant of concern”.
“But we found out about the delta variant being here on 1 April,” Susanna pointed out. “India didn’t go onto the red list until later on, effective from 23 April.”
Gove again repeated that it was not a variant under investigation until later in the month, but Susanna insisted: “We knew that it was a variant that was here, and originated from India right from the beginning of April. And on 2 April, we put Pakistan and Bangladesh on the red list, but it was only 17 days later that we put India on the red list.
“Whether we’re going to quibble about the nature of the wording around the variant, the fact of the matter is, there was an issue with Covid-positive travellers coming in from India, but we didn’t shut the border until it was too late.”
The cabinet minister then told Susanna she was “mixing up a couple of things”, which he said was “understandable” thanks to a wave of “myth-making and propaganda” around these topics.
“I’m not myth-making, Mr Gove,” she replied. “I’m talking about the positivity rate, when it comes to Covid, of travellers coming from India. Surely that’s of concern?”
Later in the interview, Richard defended Susanna’s line of questioning, insisting her data was “inarguable”, to which Gove told him to “come off it”.
Susanna then fired back: “Mr Gove, what do you mean? These are your figures from NHS Test And Trace. India had a bigger problem at a time when we were not putting it on the red list. We have an expert saying the problem was we were getting these cases coming in from India. Why was India put on the red list so late?
“You can scoff at these figures, but these figures are NHS PHE figures showing that we were exposed to infections, particularly from the delta variant, and we left the border to India open too long.”
Restrictions in England had been originally slated to be lifted on 21 June, but this date was confirmed on Monday to have been pushed back four weeks to 19 July.
Boris Johnson has said there will be a check point on June 28, where the government will review the infection data. If it still looks bad then the current Covid rules will be kept in place until 19 July, otherwise restrictions could lift a week earlier on 12 July.