Transport secretary Grant Shapps has defended the introduction of hotel quarantine for arrivals from ‘high-risk’ destinations and dismissed calls from opposition MPs for a blanket ban.

However, Shapps insisted: “If the scientists say we must close borders, we would do it. I’m not saying this could never happen.”

Appearing before the Transport Select Committee of MPs on Thursday (February 3), Shapps said: “The important thing is we try to do everything we can to prevent mutations coming in. We have to develop policy as mutations take place.

“Whereas we were previously looking at the spread of cases and that affected the government travel corridors, now we’re looking at the variants and we’ll follow where the science guides us.”

Asked why the UK did not follow the example of New Zealand and Australia and impose a blanket ban on arrivals, he said: “We’re an island. We need to get medicines and food in. If we closed down everything we wouldn’t have medicines or even vaccines coming in.

“The idea the UK could completely batten down is mistaken. We’ve seen other countries go for lock down. The US has not allowed anyone in from Europe since March 17 but still suffered the most terrible pandemic. It just isn’t that simple.”

He insisted: “We already have quarantine in place. We already have pre-departure testing in place. You can’t come from anywhere in the world without quarantine and pre-departure testing.

“We also have the world’s leading genomic tracing. These are extraordinary measures to be taking.”

Shapps argued: “If the scientists say we must close borders, we would do it. But that is not what the chief medical officer has said.”

He said a report in the Times newspaper suggesting the SAGE committee of scientists advising the government recommended blanket hotel quarantine restrictions “weeks ago” a “partial report” of what SAGE recommended.

The transport secretary said there would be no financial assistance for returning travellers quarantined in hotels, telling MPs: “It is well known the countries on the red list have had problems for some time. The numbers returning are expected to be relatively low.”

Shapps denied tensions within the government had hindered the response to Covid-19 and to demands for support for travel and aviation.

He said: “There are always tensions between departments. It is often over-simplified by the media.

“All departments are primarily concerned with getting on top of coronavirus before doing anything else and that applies equally to the Department for Transport and the Treasury.”

Shapps explained: “The Covid-O [Covid-19 Operations] cabinet sub-committee is the primary organ through which most decision-making that affects the Department for Transport takes place. I’ve found the process to be very satisfactory.”