Covid-19:International Travel

Yvonne Fovargue Excerpts
Monday 24th May 2021

(3 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Yvonne Fovargue Portrait Yvonne Fovargue (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerk. The email address is Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

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Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and to follow the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). I thank all those who have signed the petition, including 300 of my own constituents. Many of them have heartrending stories of separation from family or other loved ones or of missing deathbed visits, weddings, funerals and baptisms. For some, this separation, with all its consequences for mental health, goes back well over a year, particularly if they were not lucky enough to be able to make use of the limited travel allowed to some countries by last year’s travel corridors.

Tonight’s debate is a useful corrective to the recent media coverage of travel, which has tended to focus on holidays. We should not have a problem with people taking safe holidays—I certainly do not—but this is also about the millions of people in Britain who have family or loved ones in another country, who have been unable to see them and who are longing to do so. More than one third of children born in the United Kingdom have at least one parent who was not born here. That illustrates the scale of the separation that many of our constituents are experiencing.

Outward travel from Britain in a normal year generates £37 billion for our economy and sustains 526,000 jobs. Inward travel generates £28 billion and sustains 450,000 jobs. That does not include the value of business and professional travel, which is estimated by the Business Travel Association to be even greater. Nobody—at least almost nobody—has been arguing that we should not have any restrictions on travel at all. Every other country that is similar to the United Kingdom in its economy and the impact of covid has had foreign travel restrictions, but my concern is that the Government, having perhaps not been cautious enough on travel earlier in the pandemic, are now being over-cautious, as we come out of it, given the evidence and the data, and especially given the success and advanced state of our vaccination programme.

Look at what other countries are now doing, Ms Fovargue. Vaccinated Americans are free to travel. Most of our European neighbours are free to travel with either proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test, which is cheaply and widely available, including at most airports. A number of countries, including Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal—yes, they are popular holiday destinations for British people, but they are also countries with which people living here have many family and other ties—are already welcoming British people with open arms. They are at most requiring proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test, or, in the case of Spain from today, neither, but for most people in Britain, the fact that those other countries are ready to welcome us is meaningless because, with the exception of Portugal, all are on the Government’s orange list, requiring quarantine on return as well as multiple expensive PCR tests.

Back in February, as our vaccination programme was roaring ahead compared with those in the rest of Europe, there was a front-page headline in the German tabloid newspaper Bild Zeitung along the lines of, “The Germans are green with envy because the Brits will get to the sunbeds first this year”. That was a comment on our stellar vaccination programme. It may sound glib for me to press the point, but the Germans and other Europeans are already on the sunbeds in Spain, Greece and Italy. The British, by and large, are not.

We were promised and led to expect a vaccine dividend, but when it comes to foreign travel, we have the opposite. The British are not only under tighter travel restrictions than our European neighbours; we are more restricted than we were last summer, despite having the most-vaccinated population in Europe after Malta.

Some will say in response, and I am sure that the Minister will say later, “Ah, but the variants.” Of course, we must be on guard against new variants, against which the vaccines might not provide such a strong defence. However, we already know—the Government confirmed it this week—that the vaccines are successful against all the known variants. If the post-vaccine reality is that we have to live with the virus, and on that there seems to be a consensus, then, yes, by all means have a red list of countries of concern, but are we really going to keep our borders effectively closed and restrict travel from places that do not pose a risk, with all that entails in prolonged family separation, lost jobs and even greater damage to our economy?

The Government themselves claim to take a risk-based approach, so perhaps the Minister could answer these questions. Why does she believe that Germany, which overall has a very good record in dealing with covid and just as much concern for its citizens as we do, and other comparable countries are allowing their citizens more freedom than we allow ours? Can she explain why the long-awaited green list of countries was so limited, when infection rates in America and across Europe have been falling rapidly and vaccination rates increasing rapidly? Why was Malta, which has a higher vaccination rate and a lower covid rate than the UK, left off the green list? It would be really helpful, to the public and to our long-suffering travel and transport sectors, if the Government published their criteria for deciding whether a country is red, amber or green. The European Union has done that. Why can’t we?

The Government say they still have an islands policy, as they did last year, but that was not apparent when they published their green list, as numerous Greek and Spanish islands, which have lower infection and higher vaccine rates than Portugal, were not on that list. So, will the Minister confirm that we still have an islands policy, and that that will be clear in the next review?

What conversations has the Minister had with her Home Office colleagues about the unacceptably long waits and the mixing of people arriving from different traffic-light countries at Heathrow airport? It is welcome that there is belatedly to be a designated terminal for people arriving from red-list countries, but the rest of Europe already operates digitisation for arrivals and that must surely be possible here, especially for people arriving from green-list countries.

Will the Minister ensure that the inconsistency between what the Government in Britain say about travelling and what the Foreign Office advice says is addressed? That inconsistency has only added to the confusion for the public and for the travel industry.

When a pre-arrival 20-minute antigen test is enough for Germany and most of our neighbours, why is the UK still insisting, even for green-list countries, on an expensive pre-return PCR test, which has to be in English, Spanish or French and so is not available everywhere, and another PCR test after someone has returned?

The sacrifices that people have made over more than a year, along with our very successful vaccination programme, should mean that, as we adapt to living with covid, the UK is in a better place and ahead of other countries as we emerge from this terrible period. However, when it comes to travel, we are not ahead; we are behind our main neighbours and competitors. That is already having consequences in prolonged heartache, and worse, for our constituents who are separated from family and other loved ones, and in the jobs that are lost in our vital travel and transport sectors. Before the pandemic, we were world leaders in those sectors, but “Global Britain”, as the Government like to refer to us, is losing income, business and trade to our competitors in other countries, because those countries have opened up for travel ahead of us.

All I ask is that the Government bear all that in mind, alongside their desire to restrict people’s freedoms to protect public health, when it comes to the important decisions that they have to take on travel in the days and weeks ahead.

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?

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Yvonne Fovargue Portrait Yvonne Fovargue (in the Chair)
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I thank hon. Members for adhering to the time limits, which allows 10 minutes for each Opposition spokesperson and the Minister. I call Martyn Day.

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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.