Government may want to move on to sorting out the NHS, but their ‘small boats’ problem has just got a whole lot worse, says Joseph Kelly

With his appalling and unethical plan to sell asylum seekers to Rwanda for cash thrown into complete disarray yesterday, it’s no surprise the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is suddenly very keen to move on to other things.

Sensing that his ‘stop the boats’ narrative is falling apart, Sunak is heading off today in pursuit what he has described as the most “radical and ambitious” reform in the history of the NHS, which will somehow not only plug the 360,000 staff shortfall, but will save the taxpayer around £10bn in the process. The plan also promises more than 60,000 new doctors through new government funded training and apprenticeship schemes, though all of this is not going to be fully achieved until 2036-37 and the project is only going to get government funding for the next five years.

Whilst the figures are bold and the rhetoric ebullient, what’s being promised is fooling no-one, and really only starts to reinstate the resources that previous Conservative governments have stripped out of our Health Service over the past decade. But at least it’s a distraction from yesterday’s extremely damaging news for the government on the small boats front.

Whilst it came as a surprise to no-one, the Court of Appeal ruling that it’s unlawful to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their claims processed has undoubtedly dealt a hammer blow to government policy. On the one hand the court has confirmed what we all knew, that deficiencies in the Rwandan asylum system meant there was a real risk that people sent there could end up being returned to face persecution in their home country, even though they might have a perfectly good claim for asylum. The court’s conclusion was therefore that Rwanda was not a “safe third country”, even though assurances provided by the Rwandan government were given in good faith.

Both Mr Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman were quick to criticise the decision, and blustered that they will now bring the matter before the Supreme Court in an effort to get a decision in their favour.

“The policy of this government is very simple: it is this country – and your government – who should decide who comes here, not criminal gangs. And I will do whatever is necessary to make that happen,” said Mr Sunak.

Mrs Braverman was equally reticent: “The British people want to stop the boats, and so does this government. That’s what I am determined to deliver and I won’t take a backward step from that.”

Whether or not ‘the British people’ do want to ‘stop the boats’ or not is one of the most vexing and challenging questions at the centre of this whole issue. When the topic was raised on last night’s BBC Question Time programme (where the audience had been pre-canvassed as being predominantly Tory) presenter Fiona Bruce asked directly: “does anyone in tonight’s audience believe asylum seekers should be sent to Rwanda?” not one hand went up.

Of course it could be that even the most anti-immigration person didn’t want to raise their hand on primetime TV, be marked out as uncaring and have to defend their position – such is the hammer down on any form of free speech these days. Or it could just be that the public isn’t behind this policy at all. The whole difficulty with ‘cancel culture’ is that people no longer feel able to say what they believe, and thus we have no idea what lurks beneath the public silence.

As someone who believes fundamentally in the implicit goodness of the human person, I suspect that the whole immigration issue for most people is a patchwork of conflicting concerns – fear of the stranger vs welcoming the stranger, the economic benefits of migration vs the threats from migration, the desire to protect borders and fear of influx vs the need for safe and controlled mechanisms to provide sanctuary for those in need. These are all understandable reactions, and as members of one human family we really ought to be able to discuss such concerns openly and with resolutions in mind.

Unfortunately the decisions that matter rest in the hands of those with economics uppermost in their minds, where incomers of all types are assessed entirely in terms of their economic potential. For years we’ve been openly filtering asylum applications in favour of those with urgently required employment skills and qualifications, rather than those most in need of refuge and support, and few have questioned the rationale of splitting the queue into those of benefit and those seen as a burden. In many respects the Rwanda scheme is just an extension of that discriminatory and inhumane thinking, so it probably never occurred to anyone that it might hit the buffers. After all, the plan would help stop the desperate small boat crossings, shift thousands of people away from the UK, benefit Rwanda and give the UK a cash return. Who could argue with that?

Well quite a few of us it seems. The remarkable irony of the ‘stop the boats’ strategy is that it offended the decent instincts of even the most reticent of people across the UK. In appealing to the most dubious tenets of nationalism the Rwanda scheme stepped over a crucial red line – it made its supporters look morally and ethically bad. However deeply an individual might have wanted to stop immigration and protect UK borders, trafficking desperate human beings onwards to an uncertain future for hard cash just didn’t sit right with the need to resolve this matter in a caring and humanitarian way. At a deeper level the plan also threatened to undermine British law and the cherished perception (whether or not it’s actually true) that the UK is a welcoming and caring place, driving another nail into the coffin of the UK’s reputation as a champion of the international rule of law.

The scheme was condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury as being against “the judgement of God”; King Charles III called it “appalling” and the UN described it as “almost neo-colonial.”

It was perhaps no coincidence that the theme of last week’s annual Refugee Week was COMPASSION and, in case you did miss it, I’d encourage you to read the excellent recent document Love the Stranger, published by the Department of International Affairs at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW), which enumerates 24 principles outlining the Catholic response to migrants and refugees.

During Refugee Week our Catholic bishops also asked us to write to our local MPs to express our profound concern about the Illegal Immigration Bill, and I know many parishes across England and Wales took up this plea which hopefully served to convey to legislators the depth of concern that exists about this inhumane and ill-considered strategy. That said, appeals to government and the courts are but the last resort in what has become one of the most testing and telling of global human rights issues of recent decades. Many other countries, and especially our close European neighbours, are watching the UK closely – any success here in unravelling the already fragile international protection system for refugees will not only embolden other nations but could place countless thousands of desperate refugees in even greater danger.

There’s no doubt that the level of public reaction to the UK’s Rwanda plan has helped to derail this pernicious piece of legislation, but sadly the matter’s far from over. This morning some Conservative MPs have already begun calling for a ‘plan B’ to be formulated, with options ranging from withdrawing or derogating from the ECHR, to rewriting the whole Rwanda plan to circumvent the Court of Appeal’s judgement.

No doubt today Mr Sunak is going to be desperate to swing our attention onto his ambitious NHS plans, but the small boats problem can’t be dropped that easily. In fact the failure of this government to come up with a morally and ethically acceptable plan is only going to push even more desperate people into the hands of the criminal gangs who organise these dangerous Channel crossings. We all know that establishing safe routes and welcoming policies is the way forward and the only viable solution, so now its surely time for the government to accept and engage with that?

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian