Covid-19:International Travel

Martyn Day Excerpts
Monday 24th May 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP) [V]
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Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to take part in this e-petition debate, which calls on the Government to allow international travel to visit partners and family. There can be little doubt that the travel and tourism sector has been the part of our economy hardest hit by the pandemic, and that, of all those wishing to travel abroad, those separated from loved ones have been the most adversely affected.

Often when we think about international travel we think about holidays, so I am grateful to the petitioners, who rightly focus on the need to see loved ones. I know from my own experience how upsetting this can be. My partner’s parents live in Kerala, and we have not been able to visit each other throughout this prolonged period. Now, with India on the red list, who knows when we will physically see Rajamma and Chandran next. Like many other families, we speak daily by video call, but it is simply not the same.

Perhaps the most upsetting component of my constituency case work in this area has been that of separated families requiring international travel to take part in end-of-life visits to hopefully see their loved ones for a final time. In some cases it was not possible. In others it was complicated by quarantine arrangements, all of which made an already difficult situation seem even worse. For a lot of people, the current rules are clearly distressing and there is a need to restore normality to international travel as quickly as possible, but we must be sensible as we do that in the light of the risks that we face and that we see across many parts of the world. We have made so much progress in suppressing the virus and we must not put that at risk now by enabling new variants to enter the country too easily.

The current Scottish position on overseas travel is that earlier this month the First Minister confirmed some changes to the rules on travel from Scotland. From 17 May, Scotland moved to a traffic light system informed by risk assessments prepared by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. Those assessments are based on the state of the pandemic in each country across the world and will include the presence of variants of concern. Anyone entering Scotland from a red list country will still be required to enter a managed isolation hotel and stay there for 10 days. If they arrive from a country on the amber list, they must self-isolate at home for 10 days and take two PCR tests during that period. If they travel from a green list country, they will need to take a PCR test shortly after arrival, but will not be required to self-isolate.

The Scottish Government will of course continue to take the decisions that they consider right for Scotland, and will not sign up to decisions that might put our progress at risk. One area of risk that causes me concern is that UK Border Force has been warning for weeks that it is not sufficiently resourced to handle passengers at the borders. With Border Force officials warning that passengers this summer could face four-hour waits at UK airports due to processing documentation for covid, one Border Force worker has been quoted as saying that

“the truth is that there simply isn’t the capacity for staff to carry out the checks demanded by the government.”

Passengers are reporting that they are waiting at border control side by side with arrivals from red list countries, despite guidance stating that they should be separate. Heathrow airport has said that Border Force is responsible for separating red list passengers in its immigration halls, while the Home Office has said that arrangements for queues and the management of returning passengers are the responsibility of the relevant airport. That blame game needs to be brought to an end, and the Home Secretary needs to take responsibility for those warnings at the border before the summer.

In my opinion, everyone should continue to limit their travel abroad, and when it comes to holidays we should be playing it safe by holidaying at home and supporting our local tourism sector as much as we can this year. In saying that, we must also be cognisant of the thousands of jobs that depend upon international travel—jobs in aviation and the travel sector, and their supply chains. I am told that, pre pandemic, the outbound travel sector employed more than 221,000 people, contributing £37 billion to the UK economy and more than £6.3 billion to the Treasury annually.

In advance of the debate, ABTA wrote to members with its ask for a risk-based restart to international travel, and targeted financial support to see the industry through to recovery—not an unreasonable ask, given how much the UK Exchequer has benefited from the industry in previous years, how badly hit the sector has been, and the likely prolonged delay in international tourism returning to anything resembling normal. However, for many people, overseas travel is not about tourism or holidays but about seeing family and loved ones, and clearly more needs to be done to facilitate that. Family reunion visits should, in my opinion, be prioritised over sightseeing and international tourism, and I commend the petitioners for highlighting that need.