Covid-19:International Travel

Nick Fletcher Excerpts
Monday 24th May 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 565102, relating to international travel and covid-19.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. Another petition and another covid story that is either desperately sad or frustrating on an emotional and economic level—sometimes both. Governing is always challenging, but since March last year the Government have had to make a series of exceptionally difficult decisions. One issue that has been a source of continuing controversy is travel—who should be able to do it and for what reasons, where they should be permitted to go, and the conditions that should apply on their re-entry. Of course, when deciding those restrictions protecting public safety is paramount, but I know that Ministers have had to make those decisions while balancing a number of competing demands.

The debate concerns two of those competing demands, which affect both the personal and professional lives of people in my constituency and across the country. First is the effect of travel restrictions on people in long-distance relationships. The second is the financial hardship that the travel industry has suffered. Let me speak on the travel restrictions first. While most people who do not live with their partner have spent the last year worrying about bubbles and outdoor walks, those whose partners live abroad have dealt with concerns that are on another scale.

People in long-distance relationships are used to spending time apart, but 14 months is quite a long time. For a substantial period of that, travel has been illegal to all intents and purposes. Even when it has technically been allowed, the cost of testing and quarantining has made travel prohibitively expensive. I recently spoke with a young woman named Katie, who started the petition. Her partner David lives in Germany and they have known each other for four years. Before the pandemic, they used to visit each another regularly. Those trips would cost on average around £200. Now that Germany is on the amber list, the same trip would cost her £600, not including any income that she may lose while isolating. If Germany were on the red list, it would cost £2,400. As a result, Katie and David have seen each other only three times in the last 18 months.

According to a survey conducted by the group Love is Not Tourism, the impact of extended separation on people in long-distance relationships has been significant. Of 400 people in binational relationships questioned for the survey, many had felt depressed and hopeless and said that they were finding it difficult to do their work or take care of things at home. Sadly, Love is Not Tourism has said that 18 people in long-distance relationships have lost their partners to suicide. While suicide is a complex issue and does not have one single cause, it is impossible to deny that the distress caused by extended separation must have played a part.

In a survey run by the Petitions Committee of those who signed the petition, one respondent said:

“I have been separated from my partner for over a year…The stress, sadness and wait alone (literally alone) for any news the travel restrictions to the US will be lifted is horrendous. He cannot come here (to the UK) because of work commitments, only I am in the position to travel to him.”

That comment is typical of those who submitted feedback. While this issue primarily affects partners, parents and children who live in different countries have also been significantly impacted. Travel restrictions have meant that some people with young children have not been able to see them in many months.

I know the Government will have looked at the data on the risk of infection when setting out valid reasons for travel during the last lockdown, but it strikes some people as unfair that one can travel abroad for a business meeting, but seeing one’s partner or parent is treated the same as a holiday. This was a common theme in the feedback the Committee received, with one respondent writing:

“My father splits his time between the UK and Argentina. His wife is Argentine and has children resident in Argentina. Dad has myself, my sister and three grandchildren who are all desperate to see him. I haven’t seen Dad since 13 March 2020. I understand why restrictions had to be put in place, I’ve followed every rule. Dad doesn’t want a holiday—just contact with his family.”

Since last August, the German Government have allowed non-EU, unmarried partners into the country, provided they can demonstrate they are in long-term relationships and have met in person before. Those are reasonable requirements that the vast majority of those in long-distance relationships would be able to meet. If we had had something similar during this past year, it might have saved many people quite a lot of heartache and stress. Unfortunately, now that Germany has declared the UK an area of virus variant concern, people such as Katie and David will face even more challenges to seeing one another.

I understand that travel restrictions have been necessary over the past year. In the middle of our loosening restrictions, the appearance of the Indian variant has not helped the petitioners’ argument. However, I urge the Government to consider making allowance for people to visit their partners along the lines of Germany if we are ever to be in this position again—let us all truly hope not.

Turning to the professional side of the debate, travel restrictions have clearly had a severe impact on all parts of the travel industry. This covers a range of businesses from hotels to airlines, including my very own Doncaster Sheffield Airport, but today I would like to discuss travel agents who, I believe, have been disproportionately impacted, even among those in the travel sector, simply because of the structure of their businesses.

Since the pandemic began, travel bookings have been down 80%. In March, 57% of small and medium-sized travel agents said they did not have enough cash to survive more than six months given current restrictions, and 87% thought they would fail within a year. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Luke Petherbridge of the Association of British Travel Agents. He stressed that, in addition to suffering all the same pressures as the rest of the travel industry, travel agents have been in a particularly precarious position because they do not receive their commission until their customers actually travel. When customers cancel, travel agents have had to issue refunds out of their own account, while waiting for suppliers to refund them. ABTA estimates that 195,000 people working in travel agencies have already lost their jobs or are at risk of doing so.

Travel agents have not been able to take full advantage of the furlough scheme, either, because staff have been required to issue refunds and manage rebookings, activities that do not bring in any revenue but prevent companies from using the job retention scheme. I know this from speaking to two private travel agents in my constituency. Ideal Travel and Small World Travel have worked desperately hard to keep their customers happy. I hope this will be repaid locally when my constituents are booking their holidays over the coming years.

Frequent changes in travel advice, although many will agree necessary, will prevent travel agents making long-term plans. ABTA members are also concerned that what Government support they can access will be wound down too quickly because of the amount of time it will take for their industry to return to normal operations.

The Government could take a range of measures to help travel agents and I ask the Minister to consider them. Extending the self-employment income support scheme, along with full business rates relief for businesses operating in international travel would make a notable difference. The wider use of NHS covid tests and lateral flow tests can help both those travelling to visit their loved ones and travel agents, whose livelihoods depend on tourism. The requirement for multiple PCR tests was heavily criticised by petitioners, who believe that it is disproportionate and exploitative. One survey respondent wrote:

“I think it is excessively expensive. Seeing your family shouldn’t be a luxury”.

People also do not understand why the NHS test is not accepted for travel, with people instead having to pay hundreds of pounds for private PCR tests. Another petitioner said:

“Flights don’t allow NHS tests to be used as pre departure tests, which seems odd, surely the tests provided by our national health service should be sufficient”.

Therefore, my ask of the Minister here today is to work with colleagues in Government to see whether it will be possible to allow people to use NHS and lateral flow tests, as that would remove a significant financial burden from travellers visiting loved ones and be a more realistic possibility in helping the travel sector to recover more quickly. My ask of the petitioners and the good people of this country is to please continue to come forward for your vaccination and, although it is hard, just for a little longer bear with the restrictions. That really is the only way to get us and the rest of the world back to some kind of normality.

--- Later in debate ---
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
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I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), who is a real champion of the travel sector, made an excellent contribution. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). His point about how valuable inland tourism is for our country is something we should all take note of. I hope that when we do open up, we will welcome tourists with open arms, because £28 billion will really help to get our country back working again. My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) reminded us of how successful our vaccination programme has been, and I thank all who have played their part in making it happen.

I hope the petitioners feel that they have had their voices heard. I personally enjoyed speaking with Katie and Luke, and I wish them all the best in the coming months. I thank the Minister for her understanding of our country’s sacrifice and her compassionate reply. I know, as she does, that every exemption in this country brings with it another infection, and she also mentioned the exemptions that have been allowed. I agree that a balance is difficult, but I also agree with the petitioners that more economical testing would help with that balance, so I look forward to falling costs. Finally, I thank you, Ms Fovargue, for your chairmanship today; it has been a pleasure serving with you in the Chair.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 565102, relating to international travel and covid-19.