Covid-19:International Travel

Justin Madders Excerpts
Monday 24th May 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for introducing this important debate on international travel and covid-19, following the e-petition signed by more than 100,000 people. As he set out very clearly, all those people have particular personal circumstances—involving long-term relationships and parents and children—that mean that they are in a very difficult situation. Unfortunately, I think that, with the situation that we have seen with the Indian variant, things are not going to get any easier anytime soon.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the very important issue of the effect on the travel industry. Like him, I have local independent travel agents in my constituency. It seems at the moment that they are in the worst of all worlds: they have the workload from having to deal with cancellations and rebookings, but they do not have the ability to access additional support funds, and of course they cannot furlough all their staff, so I think that there is an argument for greater long-term support for that particular industry. The hon. Gentleman also raised a very important question about the cost of tests for people re-entering the country—a topic that we will come back to later.

There were a number of very good contributions today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) set out several important issues, including the economic impact of this situation on the travel industry and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on it. His most important point was that many countries are allowing in those who are vaccinated without additional checks. At the moment, in the terms of our policy on letting people into this country, no distinction seems to be made between those who are vaccinated and the unvaccinated. It would be useful to hear from the Minister why that is the case.

Most hon. Members talked about the importance of the economics as well as the personal situations. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) has a particular interest, given all the employees of Heathrow in his constituency. I think he said that what they really need is clarity and certainty; indeed, a lot of Members referred to that.

As we have heard, the petition calls on the Government to class in-person interaction with family members and unmarried partners as a reason to travel. I am sure that, on a human level, we can all understand that—many of us have not been able to see our loved ones as we would have liked during the lockdowns—especially when we consider that in 2019 more than 20 million trips were made by air out of the UK for the purpose of visiting family and friends. The current situation means new parents not being able to see their families, and grandparents not being able to meet up with grandchildren—actually, many people have not met their new family member for the first time.

The timing of this debate is apposite, given last Monday’s announcement that holidays abroad are no longer illegal, but there are of course, as we have heard, different rules for different countries. It should have been a simple colour-coding scheme—amber, red and green, according to each country’s risk. But of course, as we saw last week, there are as many different interpretations of what amber means as there are countries on that list.

We saw on Tuesday the Environment Secretary saying that people could fly to amber-list countries if they wanted to visit family or friends—something that the signatories of this petition would of course like to see—but then in the afternoon the Health Minister in the other place said that nobody should travel outside Britain this year at all. Later the same day, though, the Welsh Secretary said that some people might consider holidays abroad as essential.

That was three Ministers with three different interpretations in just one day, so it was left to the Prime Minister—the paragon of precision in this place—to clear up any confusion or contradiction at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday, when he came up with his own definition that people could still travel in “extreme” circumstances. That, of course, is also open to interpretation, but it does at least set the bar a little higher—until we remember that the new rules that he has actually brought in make it easier for people to travel to amber-list countries.

In fact, it is even easier than that, because if someone returns from an amber-list country, they can halve the time that they spend in self-isolation by paying for an additional test after five days. It is hardly a consistent message when it comes to what extreme circumstances in relation to international travel means. Perhaps the problem is that there is no definitive answer—it is all guidance. We have had issues in the past year where there has not been a clear-cut distinction between guidance and law. The Foreign Office website tells us:

“Whether travel is essential or not is your own decision… Only you can make an informed decision based on your own individual circumstances and the risks.”

That is the nub of the problem: everyone can have their own view on what is essential, which means there is ambivalence at the heart of Government policy, which I am afraid the virus is set to exploit.

We have spent the last year painstakingly legislating for every facet of life where covid could intrude, from when people could leave home or leave the pub to how many people can attend a funeral, yet when it comes to one of the biggest threats to our future prosperity—variants from abroad—this Government are inexplicably and recklessly letting people interpret the rules for themselves. The ambiguity over amber has to end. People should not travel to particular countries. Do not let them—it is not difficult.

I cannot believe that the more than 100 countries on that amber list all have the same level of risk. As Members have said, it is clear that more clarity and transparency are needed about why countries are on that list. One might conclude that it has been left deliberately vague so that the Government do not have to compensate the travel industry for all the cancellations that would happen if there were proper laws in place on restricting international travel. Last week, it was reported that 1,300 flights, carrying up to 54,000 passengers a day—[Interruption.] Ms Fovargue, should I continue?

Yvonne Fovargue Portrait Yvonne Fovargue (in the Chair)
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I think we will pause until the bells have finished.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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Saved by the bell. Although I am not sure whether I am or whether—[Interruption.]

Yvonne Fovargue Portrait Yvonne Fovargue (in the Chair)
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Justin Madders, would you like to continue?

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is almost as if someone does not want me to carry on speaking, but I will not be put off that easily.

We have all seen images from airports of people from red, amber and green countries mixing and standing side by side for hours in conditions where the virus can be transmitted. That makes a mockery of the sacrifices that people have made over the last year. Then, they move through the airport, on to public transport and go back to their homes, without proper controls in place.

I asked the Home Office how many visits had been made to check on people who are supposed to be quarantining at home after returning from abroad. I was told that there is no data on that, because it is an operational matter for the police. In short, the Government do not know whether people are complying with these rules. The Government could be overcompensating that lax approach by having so many countries on the amber list. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) said, it is not clear how a country gets on or off that list. It seems that putting lots of countries on the amber list is a quick and easy way of solving some of the issues in the rest of the system.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) mentioned the cost of tests for those who have to quarantine at home. Actually, it is not just the cost of those tests but the service that people are receiving that is a problem. Hundreds have had complaints about these firms, which are listed on the Department of Health and Social Care’s website. Some people have either not received their tests or not got them in time. Some have not got their results at all and have been left in limbo.

Last year, some of these private companies did not exist, and some had zero experience in the area they are benefiting from, but with the Government’s open-door policy it seems they can request to be put on the list on the Government website if they declare that they meet the required standards and either they are UK Accreditation Service-accredited or they have applied for accreditation but do not yet have it. As of March, the UKAS website said it had received 80 applications from such companies and had accredited nearly 30 such providers, but many more than that are listed on the Department’s website as providers of day two and day eight testing—when I checked this afternoon, it was 333.

I do not know about the Minister, but I find it astonishing that for one of the most critical parts of our defence against covid we are relying on companies to self-certify that they can do the job, and less than 10% of them have been properly accredited to provide the service. We must get much more rigorous in our testing and ensure that these companies can do the work accurately and safely. Will the Minister update us on how many companies are now accredited and what the Government are doing to investigate how they are operating to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to do?

Why do these restrictions at the border matter? It is because the emergence of new variants of concern is the biggest single risk to the road map. We have seen outbreaks of South African, Brazilian and now Indian variants in this country and, once again, the Government have been too slow off the mark to deal with the Indian variant. It was first identified back in February, yet travel from India was not banned until more than two months later. During that time, travellers from India came into the UK without any need to quarantine at a hotel. The consequences are now clear in the clusters of outbreaks we see.

There is a suggestion that the Prime Minister delayed adding India to the red list until he decided that he had to cancel his trade visit to India. I suppose we will add that to the long list of questions he will have to answer at the inquiry. If it is true, it is another serious error of judgment from him. In the meantime, will the Minister confirm whether decisions to place countries on particular coloured lists are all to do with health issues and not also trade deals and other such considerations?

We need to get this right now. A comprehensive, easily understood system that does not undermine the gains we have made is necessary. The Government finally decided to introduce a hotel quarantine system only in February, over a year after cases first arrived in this country. That is inexplicable. That they continue with an ineffective system that is clearly not working and is creating the injustices we have heard about today is also inexcusable. They have failed with their inadequate covid border protections. They were late to home quarantining, late to mandatory border testing, late to hotel quarantine and late to add India to the red list. We cannot afford to have the Government be late to fix the ambiguity and confusion over the amber list as well. The public have made huge sacrifices, which must not be undone now by laxity and ambiguity. The Government need to get a grip of the situation as a matter of urgency.

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.