Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab) [V]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and to follow the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). I thank all those who have signed the petition, including 300 of my own constituents. Many of them have heartrending stories of separation from family or other loved ones or of missing deathbed visits, weddings, funerals and baptisms. For some, this separation, with all its consequences for mental health, goes back well over a year, particularly if they were not lucky enough to be able to make use of the limited travel allowed to some countries by last year’s travel corridors.
Tonight’s debate is a useful corrective to the recent media coverage of travel, which has tended to focus on holidays. We should not have a problem with people taking safe holidays—I certainly do not—but this is also about the millions of people in Britain who have family or loved ones in another country, who have been unable to see them and who are longing to do so. More than one third of children born in the United Kingdom have at least one parent who was not born here. That illustrates the scale of the separation that many of our constituents are experiencing.
Outward travel from Britain in a normal year generates £37 billion for our economy and sustains 526,000 jobs. Inward travel generates £28 billion and sustains 450,000 jobs. That does not include the value of business and professional travel, which is estimated by the Business Travel Association to be even greater. Nobody—at least almost nobody—has been arguing that we should not have any restrictions on travel at all. Every other country that is similar to the United Kingdom in its economy and the impact of covid has had foreign travel restrictions, but my concern is that the Government, having perhaps not been cautious enough on travel earlier in the pandemic, are now being over-cautious, as we come out of it, given the evidence and the data, and especially given the success and advanced state of our vaccination programme.
Look at what other countries are now doing, Ms Fovargue. Vaccinated Americans are free to travel. Most of our European neighbours are free to travel with either proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test, which is cheaply and widely available, including at most airports. A number of countries, including Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal—yes, they are popular holiday destinations for British people, but they are also countries with which people living here have many family and other ties—are already welcoming British people with open arms. They are at most requiring proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test, or, in the case of Spain from today, neither, but for most people in Britain, the fact that those other countries are ready to welcome us is meaningless because, with the exception of Portugal, all are on the Government’s orange list, requiring quarantine on return as well as multiple expensive PCR tests.
Back in February, as our vaccination programme was roaring ahead compared with those in the rest of Europe, there was a front-page headline in the German tabloid newspaper Bild Zeitung along the lines of, “The Germans are green with envy because the Brits will get to the sunbeds first this year”. That was a comment on our stellar vaccination programme. It may sound glib for me to press the point, but the Germans and other Europeans are already on the sunbeds in Spain, Greece and Italy. The British, by and large, are not.
We were promised and led to expect a vaccine dividend, but when it comes to foreign travel, we have the opposite. The British are not only under tighter travel restrictions than our European neighbours; we are more restricted than we were last summer, despite having the most-vaccinated population in Europe after Malta.
Some will say in response, and I am sure that the Minister will say later, “Ah, but the variants.” Of course, we must be on guard against new variants, against which the vaccines might not provide such a strong defence. However, we already know—the Government confirmed it this week—that the vaccines are successful against all the known variants. If the post-vaccine reality is that we have to live with the virus, and on that there seems to be a consensus, then, yes, by all means have a red list of countries of concern, but are we really going to keep our borders effectively closed and restrict travel from places that do not pose a risk, with all that entails in prolonged family separation, lost jobs and even greater damage to our economy?
The Government themselves claim to take a risk-based approach, so perhaps the Minister could answer these questions. Why does she believe that Germany, which overall has a very good record in dealing with covid and just as much concern for its citizens as we do, and other comparable countries are allowing their citizens more freedom than we allow ours? Can she explain why the long-awaited green list of countries was so limited, when infection rates in America and across Europe have been falling rapidly and vaccination rates increasing rapidly? Why was Malta, which has a higher vaccination rate and a lower covid rate than the UK, left off the green list? It would be really helpful, to the public and to our long-suffering travel and transport sectors, if the Government published their criteria for deciding whether a country is red, amber or green. The European Union has done that. Why can’t we?
The Government say they still have an islands policy, as they did last year, but that was not apparent when they published their green list, as numerous Greek and Spanish islands, which have lower infection and higher vaccine rates than Portugal, were not on that list. So, will the Minister confirm that we still have an islands policy, and that that will be clear in the next review?
What conversations has the Minister had with her Home Office colleagues about the unacceptably long waits and the mixing of people arriving from different traffic-light countries at Heathrow airport? It is welcome that there is belatedly to be a designated terminal for people arriving from red-list countries, but the rest of Europe already operates digitisation for arrivals and that must surely be possible here, especially for people arriving from green-list countries.
Will the Minister ensure that the inconsistency between what the Government in Britain say about travelling and what the Foreign Office advice says is addressed? That inconsistency has only added to the confusion for the public and for the travel industry.
When a pre-arrival 20-minute antigen test is enough for Germany and most of our neighbours, why is the UK still insisting, even for green-list countries, on an expensive pre-return PCR test, which has to be in English, Spanish or French and so is not available everywhere, and another PCR test after someone has returned?
The sacrifices that people have made over more than a year, along with our very successful vaccination programme, should mean that, as we adapt to living with covid, the UK is in a better place and ahead of other countries as we emerge from this terrible period. However, when it comes to travel, we are not ahead; we are behind our main neighbours and competitors. That is already having consequences in prolonged heartache, and worse, for our constituents who are separated from family and other loved ones, and in the jobs that are lost in our vital travel and transport sectors. Before the pandemic, we were world leaders in those sectors, but “Global Britain”, as the Government like to refer to us, is losing income, business and trade to our competitors in other countries, because those countries have opened up for travel ahead of us.
All I ask is that the Government bear all that in mind, alongside their desire to restrict people’s freedoms to protect public health, when it comes to the important decisions that they have to take on travel in the days and weeks ahead.