Covid-19:International Travel

Huw Merriman Excerpts
Monday 24th May 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department of Health and Social Care
Yvonne Fovargue Portrait Yvonne Fovargue (in the Chair)
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Will Members try to keep their contributions to five minutes, so that we can get the Minister in?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)
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Thank you for calling me, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, and I thank the more than 100,000 petitioners who have made their voices heard. I particularly welcome the case for families seeing their partners, where they are not married, and their friends and loved ones generally. For far too long we have been told that people should not be able to go on holiday. I profoundly disagree and, like the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), believe people should be entitled to go on holiday.

What has become of our country that we seek to demonise those who wish to go on holiday? For a lot of people, this is about a trip abroad to see their loved ones and those they are in a relationship with, whom they have not seen for over a year in certain circumstances. To me, that demonstrates a need for compassion so as to allow those individuals to get back to see their families, friends and loved ones. I absolutely get behind the e-petitioners; they have my full support to ensure that not just they, but others who have legitimate reasons to do so, are able to travel abroad. I believe that is now safe and proportionate.

I am grateful to the e-petitioners because the Transport Committee has been able to tag on to this debate the two reports in which we made our recommendations to Government. In the first report, dated 9 March this year, we pushed for the Government to ensure that the global travel taskforce recommendations were published by 12 April to unlock international travel by 17 May. We were glad that the Government largely met those dates.

Perhaps the more relevant report in terms of time is that of 20 April this year, in which the Committee made a number of recommendations, which are worth highlighting. The first was that the traffic light system should be populated by 1 May to give industry and travellers sufficient time to navigate the rules and comply with them. The second was that the criteria for changing the traffic lights should be set out in full by 1 May. The third was that testing requirements should be proportionate to the risk set out with respect to those traffic lights.

The final recommendation was that Border Force resourcing and the sponsorship of digital arrivals should mean that more people could safely come through the airport terminal. I was disappointed when nothing arrived by 1 May, but obviously we did hear something on 7 May. We heard about the criteria, which I welcome, but on those first two I was absolutely underwhelmed by the number of countries on the green list and the sheer number on the amber list. It was incredibly disappointing, for the reasons I will set forth.

I am conscious that I did not check what time I began speaking, Ms Fovargue. The right hon. Member for Exeter had the benefit of a clock, but I do not, so I will give myself two more minutes. I apologise if that makes me overrun.

I was pleased that the Border Force resourcing was stepped up by the Government, and indeed e-gates will come into force as well, so there is some progress there. I make my ultimate plea the Government: 70% of the UK population have been given a first dose of the vaccination, and 34% are fully vaccinated, which means that 60 million vaccines have been put into arms. It is essential that we get moving and give people back their liberties and freedoms—not just for them as individuals, but so as to employ the 500,000 people in our economy who rely on international travel.

I am not glib about safety, but it has been demonstrated that the vaccine is effective on the latest mutant strain, and if we take the view that we can never unlock because there might be a risk of a mutant strain, we will never be able to fly again. There has to come a point when we look at the proportionality, the health risks involved and the mitigation in place against those health risks, which is testing and quarantine, and we then look at what is good for the economy and for people’s individual freedoms. Otherwise, what is the point of having a successful vaccination programme? Where is the vaccination dividend, and when can we return to a situation whereby people are able to visit their loved ones, friends and families, or indeed take a well-earned holiday? We will then prove to the British people that it was worth it after all.

I apologise profusely if I have gone over time. Had I had the clock, I would have ensured that I did not do so.

Virendra Sharma Portrait Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab) [V]
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It is a great pleasure to speak under your leadership, Ms Fovargue. I thank all the people who signed the petition.

I want to speak briefly on two important points. First, my constituents rely on Heathrow airport for jobs and the energy that it brings to the local economy, as do many people in the areas around my constituency. The past 15 months have been extremely difficult for them, and the recovery needs to be meaningful and consistent to save businesses and livelihoods. Local employers need the certainty that a safe return to international travel brings, and they need Government support for investment.

A dedicated red list arrivals facility will make travelling safer and increase confidence that the UK’s only hub airport is supported as a safe travel route. Government commitments to make that logistically and financially viable are needed, and an answer sooner rather than later would ensure that safe travel for millions of people this summer was possible. I have raised in the House the need for Border Force properly to staff entry points, and we can rebuild trust and keep people safe by employing sufficient staff. Infrastructure on the ground should not be a second thought; it needs to be central to our planning.

My second point is about where we support recovery. I want investment in recovery to be made in places that embody our values. We should not be supporting a return to normal, but building back better. Eco-tourism is not exclusively branding; it supports the communities where it takes place. It is not just the preserve of the wealthy; it can save environments, communities and species from extinction.

In supporting protection efforts around the world, good eco-tourism is about preservation and conservation. It is also about animal welfare, and I am proud to have been a parliamentary supporter of Save The Asian Elephants for many years. Its work has done more than any other to shine a light on unethical tourism, and the organisation’s latest petition reached over 1 million signatures last week. I urge all hon. Members present to sign it. Unfortunately, despite our work with STAE, we have not yet been successful in convincing ABTA—The Travel Association to dissociate itself totally from cruel and unethical elephant venues. I hope that when we think about the steps that we are taking to enable holidays and to open up international travel, we put our morals and beliefs at the heart of any strategy.