Covid-19:International Travel

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Monday 24th May 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jo Churchill Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Jo Churchill)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for raising this important issue on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I thank all Members of the House who have taken time for this wide-ranging debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland) Bracknell, and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). The one thing it did absolutely perfectly was display the complexity of the area and how difficult it is to get to a perfect solution.

I will take from the debate that we all agree that people have made enormous sacrifices, both in the country and out of the country, and that the vaccine roll-out has been a tremendous success. However, I point out that we have not yet reached the under-30 age group. While everybody was lucid about allowing people who had had a vaccination to travel, nobody said anything about those who had not, or what the solution was for them. This debate has ranged from the travel industry to business travel and has covered the Department for Transport, jobs and a wide range of Departments, but at its heart is how we are dealing with family and friends.

The past 14 months have presented huge challenges for all of us, and it is only right that members of the public, like Ms Sinclair, should debate such issues of enormous interest to us. My heart goes out to everyone who, 14 months ago, did not want to spend the past year like this. However, many of the reasons why people make sacrifices, in this country and without, are well known to us all. Last Monday, we took an important move to step 3 of the Government’s road map, in that we removed the provision to stay in the UK. International and leisure travel is slowly—I repeat, slowly—starting again and there is a new traffic light system.

In essence, the petition asks whether family members and unmarried partners should be able to visit their families and partners abroad, specifically regarding the “stay at home” and “stay in the UK” measures, which were in effect until 29 March and 17 May respectively. Under “stay in the UK”, individuals had to have a reasonable excuse to leave the UK. As with all restrictions during the pandemic, no decision has been easy, and none has been taken lightly. Where international travel is concerned, we acted to control the spread of the virus and to reduce the risks of variants being imported and exported. It struck me as interesting that people assume that that is completely possible while exempting people in a whole range of different areas.

I have often argued against the party of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, which has said that we should have a more stringent managed quarantine system. Everyone cannot have everything; we have to have a balanced approach in what we are doing. At the heart of everything is protecting people. We are opening up, but we are going slowly. Where international travel is concerned, we do not want to export or import variants, as I said.

Infection rates have fallen back at points but, crucially, a large amount of the population are not yet vaccinated, so it is vital that we maintain additional restrictions while the programme continues through the cohorts and to counter the risk of import or export. I of course appreciate the desire to see loved ones. I sympathise with those who have not seen partners and family members for a long time. I, too, like everyone else in the Chamber, have constituents who have come to me with such challenges. I recognise how difficult it is for people with family and partners based abroad. The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges. My thanks go to everyone for their contribution and to all those working in the health service. That is what has allowed us to arrive at where we are today.

Acknowledging instances of those with family members overseas, the “stay in the UK” regulations included a number of reasonable excuses—no one appeared to allude to them—to allow international travel in circumstances where visits could not be delayed. I have had constituents—[Interruption.] I will try to beat the bell. I have constituents who have used those exemptions, which include travel to support someone giving birth, to accompany someone to a medical appointment, to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person, including those of 70 years or older, a woman who is pregnant or those with underlying health conditions, or to say your last goodbyes at the end of life. So, there have been possibilities; to say that there has been none is just wrong. People could also travel out of the UK to attend their own wedding or civil partnership, or that of a close family member if at least one of the persons getting married or entering the partnership lives outside the UK.

As part of the road map, however, the Government took the prudent decision, informed by the latest data and analysis, not to allow international travel to see family members and partners more generally, however hard that feels. It was not an easy decision. Indeed, it is one of the many tough but necessary decisions taken as we continue to follow the road map out of lockdown. It is about finding a balance between priorities, including the need to save lives and to mitigate another surge in infections, as well as to avoid putting pressure on the NHS.

Those restrictions have bought us time: time to establish the vaccine roll-out and reduce the spread of disease, time to vaccinate front-line staff and care staff, and time to vaccinate care home residents and the most vulnerable. We continue to make good progress. As of 22 May, over 37.9 million people have received their first vaccine, another 22.6 million people have received their second dose and a staggering 60.5 million covid vaccine doses have been administered across the UK, through the enormous efforts of our general practice teams, pharmacists and mass vaccination centres.

Public Health England reports that the UK covid vaccination programme has prevented about 12,000 deaths in those aged 60 or above in England. Furthermore, it has saved 33,000 hospital admissions for those over 65. Restrictions on international travel have helped us achieve these things and have helped protect people so we can move to step 3. It is important that we remain vigilant and continue to manage the risks, so that we do not lose the benefits gained through the efforts thus far. Step 3 includes a cautious, managed return to international leisure travel, which I hope colleagues across the House will embrace.

I will address some specific points raised by hon. Members. When we talk about opening up, it is important to keep in mind that we had the indication only this weekend that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were both effective against the Indian variant, so asking us to see into the future is incredibly difficult.

On 17 May, we moved to a traffic light system that categorises countries based on their level of risk to public health and the potential effect of variants of covid-19 to limit the efficacy of the roll-out. Decisions on designating countries to red, amber or green lists and the associated border measures are under constant review, to ensure that we manage the risks. These risks are challenging. They are about the impact on people’s jobs, livelihoods and all those things, but they are predominantly about people’s health and wellbeing, and about protecting people.

The decisions are taken by Ministers, who consider the Joint Biosecurity Centre analysis, as well as wider public health considerations. As I have explained, decisions are under constant review so that we manage the risks. I was glad that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) outlined how rigorous this process is and how we are now in better lockstep with our friends across the border.

We are making progress as we journey along the road map, but we have to remain vigilant. Variants continue to pose a significant risk that we are monitoring closely, and action will be taken as necessary to stop the spread. Border measures, including testing and quarantine, continue to help manage the risks. That includes the requirement for international arrivals, except those from green list countries, to take a pre-departure test and isolate for 10 days, either at home or in a managed quarantine hotel if they have come from a red list country, and to take a post-arrival test on day two and day eight.

Several hon. Members talked about testing. From May 15, NHS Test and Trace reduced the cost of tests from £210 to £170, and day two tests for green list countries went down to £88. These costs include genomic sequencing if someone has a positive test. Other private providers are stringently tested to ensure quality, and they are available. PCR tests continue to fall in cost, to around £100 to £120 for a day two test. We expect green arrival tests to be somewhere between £20 to £60. As the market develops, that cost will keep dropping as prices become more competitive, but I gently ask, is the British taxpayer meant to pay for the test for leisure purposes and travel?

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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I understand the point that the British taxpayer should not be expected to pay for these tests for leisure purposes. However, a person who goes on to the Government website now does not need to give a reason to receive a lateral flow test, and we know that for a number of sporting events that have taken place, the condition for entry has been tests, which have also been free. There is not any consistency here, is there?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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As I say, these things are kept under constant review. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is testing large-scale events involving large groups of in-country crowds. That is completely different from testing those people who are returning to the country. Measures for these international journeys are essential, and it is vital that we follow what restrictions remain in place.

It is also essential that offers of vaccination are taken up by everybody as soon as possible. We hope that the continued success of the vaccination roll-out, including increased testing capabilities, alongside falling infections and hospitalisations, will allow us to continue to lift restrictions. However, we have to protect our hard-fought gains made over the past few months, and we are taking a cautious approach to opening up international travel, given that the risk from those travelling back from countries with high prevalence or where there are variants of concern is not only to the individual, but to wider society.

Some Members brought up the difference between allowing us to enlarge business travel and travel to visit family, friends and so on. They are, in fact, completely different—I very rarely behave with family and friends as I might in a business meeting, so I would urge a little caution before drawing a comparison between the two. Like everybody else, I feel for travel agents and so on in this time of uncertainty. However, they are supported by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the different interventions that have been put in place. Those things will be ongoing after we open up on 21 June, so long as we keep on the road map, and there is some assistance for businesses going forward.

This is a first step, and more opportunities will come along. It is important to remember that, and to highlight that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation looks at the outcome of vaccine programmes on reduced levels of infection, high levels of vaccination, and the transmission risk and variants of concern. I reiterate my sympathy for those who have not been able to visit family and partners, and my thanks to those who have stepped up. Getting to this point has taken remarkable perseverance and resolve, and I am grateful to everyone who has got us here. The collective effort has meant that we can reopen our borders, allowing us where possible to reunite families, loved ones and friends. We must continue this careful approach. It is a risk-based approach, informed by the latest data and scientific evidence and by the abiding need to protect the population’s health and wellbeing, and thereby the economy.

With all this in mind, I believe we have good reason to feel optimistic, although there will be new and unexpected challenges, and there will be some setbacks as well. I have not hugged some of my children for 14 months, and they all live in this country—we have a large family. It is tough, and I get that, but we are doing what we are doing for the right reasons. We are better protected and better prepared to take on those challenges than we have ever been.