I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to immediately introduce a comprehensive hotel quarantine system for all arrivals into the UK, thereby securing the country against the import of new strains and maximising the effectiveness of the country’s vaccination programme; to publish the scientific evidence which informed the Government’s decision not to introduce a comprehensive hotel quarantine regime to flights from all countries; and to announce a sector support package for aviation focused on employment and environmental improvements.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming to speak in today’s debate. I think it is the first time that I have appeared opposite her in one of these debates.
Last week, the country passed the heartbreaking milestone of 100,000 deaths as a result of this awful pandemic. I know that everyone across the House mourns all those lost, and we think today of all the families up and down the country for whom life will never be the same again.
Our United Kingdom is a country of incredible resources and many of the world’s finest scientists. It has the dedication and brilliance of our wonderful NHS and care workers—indeed, all our frontline workers—and yet we have still ended up with the worst death toll in Europe and the worst economic hit of any major country. We have to learn the lessons fast. More than 50,000 people who died as a result of this awful virus in the UK died since 11 November. We have to ask why the United Kingdom has fared so badly, not as some sort of academic exercise, but to save lives.
In recent days, the Government’s chief scientific adviser said:
“You’ve got to go hard, early and broader if you’re going to get on top of this. Waiting and watching simply doesn’t work.”
That is the lesson that he is advising the Government to draw: to go wider when they can. But are Ministers really learning that lesson?
We are an island country. Our border protections should have been one of our strengths throughout this pandemic, unlike countries that have very long land borders that they would have had to police. Instead, it has been one of our greatest weaknesses. Our country’s doors have been left unlocked. First the virus and then its mutations have been imported to our shores. The lesson is that failing to act quickly and decisively leads only to greater pain further down the line.
From 1 January to 23 March last year, only 273 people from four flights were formally quarantined, when over 18 million people entered the country by air. That came at a time when we all saw the terrible scenes in northern Italy of hospitals being overwhelmed, when our constituents were contacting us questioning why there were not better and more effective controls at our airports, and when our own chief scientific adviser to the Government said
“a lot of the cases in the UK did not come from China”
and that they
“came from European imports and the high level of travel into the UK”
at that time.
I wrote to the Home Secretary in April to ask her to learn the lessons from that, but still the UK remained an international outlier. In May 2020, the UK stood with only Iran, Luxembourg and the US Virgin Islands in having no border protection measures in place. In that first national lockdown, 446,500 people—nearly half a million—arrived in the UK. It was not until 8 June last year that formal quarantining was introduced. Even when border testing was made compulsory, which was only this month—10 months after the first lockdown began—the Government still had to delay the implementation as they could not get the necessary systems in place. Where has the proper strategy on border testing been? This essential and vital strategy would have made such a difference.
Rather than careful planning, we have experienced chaotic scenes at Heathrow, even in recent weeks. Covid is not going away. We need this strategy, and we need it now. The Government border policy has lurched from one crisis to another devoid of strategy, and we have seen that only in recent weeks with the announcement of the Government’s latest proposals on hotel quarantining. Limiting restrictions to just a small number of countries means that the protections do not go anywhere near far enough, with the threat of new variants coming in from other countries not on the red list. In the words of the Government’s chief scientific adviser, are they really going “hard, early and broader”? Absolutely not. Again, it is too little too late. Even when Ministers made the announcement, they had no date for bringing it into effect.
Our vaccine roll-out is a source of great hope for the whole country, and great credit must go to our scientists and all those involved in the vaccine programme, but the biggest threat to the vaccine programme is from mutant strains of the virus. We know where some mutant strains have emerged because of the advanced genome sequencing that detected them, but too few countries have that expertise. We know the virus will mutate further, and we cannot risk one of those mutations undermining our vaccines. Back-Bench Conservative MPs who do not support this motion today are sending a message that they are willing to take that risk.
The hard truth is that we have no certainty about where the next more dangerous strains of Covid will emerge. We have been warned that new strains are already potentially threatening vaccine efficacy, and yet we still have around 21,000 visitors entering the country daily. It will make no sense to people that Britain’s borders are still open while the country is locked down. That is why Labour is calling for decisive action today through a comprehensive hotel quarantine policy, and that would mean a policy of enforced quarantine restrictions on arrivals. Of course I accept that there would need to be exemptions, especially in areas such as haulage to keep the country functioning, but our starting point must be a comprehensive policy. Failing to adopt that policy risks undermining the huge gains that have been made by the vaccine roll-out, threatening life and hope.
The existing quarantining system is not working. To see that, we have only to look at the Government’s own figures, which show that just three in every 100 people have been successfully contacted for quarantine compliance —yet another Government failure. Other figures suggest that just one in 10 passenger locator forms is checked at airports. None of that is good enough, and it has happened because the Government have failed in their duty to properly drive a consistent strategy and high performance through our measures at the border and the checks of the isolation assurance service.
Yet those inadequate measures are still our protection against the virus for all but a limited number of countries on the red list. Devoid of strategy, the Government continue to be behind the curve, hoping for the best. It is little wonder that there seems to be such confusion and unedifying counter-briefing among the Cabinet on the policy, because frankly, it makes no sense. We do not even know at the moment when the policy will be introduced and whether the Government propose legislation for it, as has been speculated.
I have great respect for the Minister, as she knows, and it is great to see her present for the debate, but I note that the Home Secretary is not participating in it to defend Government policy, which after all is part of her departmental responsibilities. Frankly, she has every reason not to be present, given that the Home Office has lost 400,000 police records and she still has not explained what has been lost, let alone how she will retrieve it. We also know what her personal view is of Government policy. There has been alleged briefing to newspapers that she does not agree with Government policy, but if there was any doubt about what her view was, we can all watch the video of her telling Conservative party members that she advocated for the borders to be closed back in March last year.
We know that the Home Secretary does not support, and has not supported, the Government policy on the borders that she has had to defend in public, so who does support it? The Health Secretary, who was said to be opening the debate instead of her, is not present either. It is said that there have been briefings to newspapers that he is another Cabinet Minister who does not agree with the policy. Perhaps the Minister can outline and promise to publish the full scientific data that underpins the Government’s decision to create a so-called red list of countries, and set out not just the commencement date but what she envisages the exit strategy from the measures to be.
How on earth can the Government be assured that the measures will prevent emerging strains from countries outside those on the red list? The truth is that the Government cannot answer that question. As a result, the policy is fatally flawed. A comprehensive quarantine policy would give us the best possible chance of preventing a new strain from undermining the astonishing collective sacrifice of the British people. It cannot be right that, with the ineffective quarantine system that is in place, 21,000 people continue to enter the country on a daily basis.
I recognise, of course, the huge challenges to the aviation sector and its supply chains, the impact on the tourism and hospitality industry, and the number of jobs that it supports. I have heard about it in my own discussions over the past year, and when I have been able to visit our airport frontline. Let me also pay tribute to Border Force, the police and our wider law enforcement community. They have worked heroically, but the gaps in our defences that have existed and do exist are not their fault, but the failure of Ministers.
That failure also extends to economic support. It is why the Government must come forward with the long-promised sector-specific support deal called for by my hon. Friend the shadow Transport Secretary, saving jobs and ensuring that there are environmental improvements as set out in this motion. Let me be clear: we need to see this support package, and the money needs to be properly targeted to meet its aims. We have seen appalling fire and rehire tactics, which should be outlawed. That practice has no place in our country and it is an insult to workers. Staff salaries should be protected with a clear commitment to workers’ rights, and let us see a commitment to cleaner fuels and other cutting-edge low or zero-emission technologies. Companies’ tax bases should be in the UK, and there should not be dividends paid until a company is commercially viable. UK-based suppliers must be the priority, and operators must comply with consumer rights regulations. The Government have known the need for this for months, and inaction and continuing inaction is not the answer.
As hon. and right hon. Members cast their votes today —indeed, whether or not they choose to cast votes at all—I ask them to think back and learn the lessons. If we had introduced quarantining for high-risk countries only a year ago, what would have happened? As one Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies member, Sir Jeremy Farrar, put it:
“We need to learn the lessons from 2020…If we’d imposed restrictions in January and February last year we would probably have imposed them on high risk countries—China maybe. But almost all the virus that arrived came from Europe.”
There is no point, either, in offering a false choice or a bogus dilemma between protective health measures at the border and the economy. Our best chance of breathing life back into the UK aviation and tourism industry is to be able to lift as many restrictions as possible here at home as soon as it is safe to do so with the vaccine roll-out.
Crucially, that would all be put at risk if a new strain took hold that is resistant to the vaccine, yet the quarantine policy as it stands does precious little to stop that. It cannot predict where the next strains will emerge, and in its current form it cannot stop arrivals in the UK breaking quarantine rules. The existing quarantine system just is not effective. The Government have created an Achilles heel that undermines the heroic efforts of the British people in tackling this virus. Members across this House believe that as well—perhaps even members of the Cabinet. Now is the time to act. Lives will depend on it and our futures depend on it. I commend this motion to the House.
I welcome today’s debate on a matter that is rightly of huge public interest. As the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said, we have had a challenging time, but I know that everybody across the House will be cheered by the news of the vaccines, and the number rolled out over the weekend—nearly 1 million, at 931,204—is quite staggering. As of today, over 9.2 million people have now received the jab, and every elderly care home resident in England has been offered the vaccine. The roll-out will accelerate in the coming months, and with the combined news that the UK today has secured another 40 million extra doses of the Valneva vaccine, in addition to the 60 million we already had on order—taking our national total to over 400 million vaccine doses—we know that, with each jab, we have clearly moved that step closer to the more normal life that people crave. It is our strong vaccine portfolio that offers great hope not only to the people of this country, but across the world, because unless we are all safe, no one is safe.
As hon. Members recognise, however, the challenges posed by covid-19 are still here today and we must continue to make the difficult decisions to protect the whole population. There is no question but that new variants pose new threats—threats that we must overcome to protect the progress of the vaccine programme and, of course, to protect the sacrifices that everybody has been making for many months now. It has meant that we have had to take tough action at our borders, which we have done. Earlier in the pandemic, border restrictions were about stopping the onward transmission of infections from countries with higher infection rates, but the new variants from abroad pose a different and new set of risks, and we do not yet have a full picture of those risks.
Of particular concern is a risk of having a variant that escapes the vaccine. We have a high degree of confidence in the vaccines, and confidence that the vaccine will work against the variant that was first identified in the UK, but we have also begun studies on the variants that were first identified in South Africa and Brazil in four laboratories. We will continue to work with our scientists and the UK vaccines taskforce to understand how quickly a new vaccine could be rolled out if needed.
We have also launched our new variant assessment platform, working in partnership with the World Health Organisation, which offers genomic expertise— something we lead in—to help other countries across the world, because, as I have said, we are only safe when everyone is safe. Much of what the hon. Member for Torfaen suggested sounded a little like he wanted to shut down against the entire world. Only a few months back, he, the hon. Members for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) asked us when we were going to lessen quarantine. We have to have a flexible programme, where we build a response.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way on that point, because it is absolutely right that I mentioned the blunt tool of a 14-day quarantine back in June last year. That was because the Government did not have their own test, trace and isolate system up and running to avoid the blunt tool of a 14-day quarantine. The point was about the failure of the Government, not the inconsistency of the Opposition’s position.
As with all science, we are learning more but, as we do, we must continue to do all we can to protect this country.
It is right that new border restrictions are tougher. On 18 January, the UK temporarily closed all travel corridors and added a requirement for anyone coming to this country to have proof of a negative covid test taken in the 72 hours prior to departure. All travellers have had to complete a passenger locator form, which must be checked before they board and then self-isolate on arrival for 10 days. Our stay-at-home regulations are clear: it is illegal to leave home to travel abroad for leisure purposes. Going on holiday is not a valid reason for travel.
We have also banned all direct travel from over 30 countries where there is a risk of known variants, including southern Africa, South America and Portugal. This is a ban on entry for all arrivals, except British, Irish and third country nationals with resident rights in the UK, who have been in the travel ban countries in the past 10 days. But as the Prime Minister said on 27 January, we must not be afraid to go further if necessary, and on the 27th, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary outlined the further steps that we have been compelled to take, and I will lay them out.
With regard to those entering the UK, first, the police have stepped up checks and are carrying out more physical checks at addresses to make sure that people are self-isolating. Secondly, we are continuing to refuse entry to non-UK residents from the countries already subject to the UK travel ban. Thirdly, we are introducing a new managed isolation process in hotels for those who cannot be refused entry, including those arriving home from countries where we have already imposed international travel bans. They will be required to isolate for 10 days, with very few exceptions and only where strictly necessary.
With regard to those travelling out of the UK, first, we have increased our enforcement of the existing rules, because people should be staying at home unless they have a valid reason to leave. We will introduce a requirement for people to declare their reason to travel, which will be checked by carriers prior to departure and again at the border. Secondly, we are increasing police presence at airports and ports, and those without a valid reason for travel will be turned around and sent home or face a fine. Thirdly, this week we are again reviewing the list of exemptions from isolation so that only the most important and exceptional reasons are included. I am clear that our approach must be firm but flexible, and not the one-size-fits-all approach advocated by the hon. Member for Torfaen.
The Minister referred to police checks. The data published last week showed that, when the police are doing these very minimal checks at the moment, if they find that nobody is home—so clearly nobody is self-isolating at that address—they take no further enforcement action at all. Does she not think that is crazy?
And that is why we are working as quickly as possible across Government and using everything at our disposal to ensure that we have an efficient method of ensuring that people are doing what the vast majority are doing. We not only have the police stepping up; we also have the isolation assurance service. The number of people sampled per day for calls is 1,500 out of those who arrive. We make a total of 3,000 IAS calls a day and send another 10,000 texts. These are repeated contacts with individuals, and it is a considerably different picture now from the one that may have been the case back in the middle of last summer. As I say, we have started, and this is a flexible, firm approach that can be stepped up and down.
The hon. Member for Torfaen spoke about a blanket ban across all countries and for all things, but actually, with regard to making sure we are safe, it must be firm and flexible so that we can ensure not only that we keep ourselves safe in this country but, as the pandemic takes its course, that we can respond appropriately. This blanket ban from all countries that he is talking about—
I apologise—the hon. Member for Torfaen is talking about a blanket quarantine from all countries. He mentioned an exemption for hauliers. What about other exemptions? What about elite sport, or medical emergencies, or the plethora of other issues, particularly around security, which I know he is extremely exercised about? He also knows, as I do, that there are specific minute details that this blanket ban—
No, the right point is to work as quickly as possible across all the different Government Departments that are involved to ensure that we have the correct policy so that we are doing the appropriate thing, rather than having a blanket ban and then repeatedly coming back and saying, “What about this. What about that?” We need to ensure that we have an appropriate system that has been reviewed and thoroughly looked at by all the different Departments involved—the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Transport, the Cabinet Office and others—so that everybody has made sure that there are no gaps in the system.
This is not just about what the Government are doing; it about what we are all doing. In so many ways, our efforts begin not at the border but at home, with the actions we take to stay at home. The hon. Gentleman spoke of how we can protect the NHS in order to save lives, and in that respect every one of us plays a vital role in driving the rates of the virus down and denying it the opportunity to mutate and give rise to new variants.
As we take the necessary steps at the border, we recognise the challenges they present to industry. We continue to support our air transport sector, including airlines, airports and related services, and by the end of April the sector will have received some £3 billion of support through the covid corporate finance scheme and the job retention scheme. I am sure the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) will talk more about this, but last Friday we launched our airport and ground operations support scheme, which will support eligible businesses through this difficult time, with airports and ground handlers in England eligible to receive up to £8 million each. That will help them to continue to prepare for a future when international travel is ready to take off again, because we must have a system that fits our playing our part in the world.
It sounds to me that by working out a policy that expects quarantine from everyone, far from looking at ourselves and far from being outward looking, Labour is proposing that we close our doors. That cannot be right if we are all going to walk together and beat this virus. I want to reflect that the Government and indeed the whole country take pride in our being global Britain, a place with a history and culture of being open, outward looking and supportive. Even as we are compelled to take tougher steps at our borders, that spirit lives on, through our leading role in COVAX, boosting global access to covid-19 vaccines; through our new variant assessment platform, bringing British expertise to the world; and through that vast, powerful network of medical and scientific communities collaborating on a worldwide scale so that we can overcome this global challenge. The hon. Member for Torfaen and I agree that medical science can bring so much to helping people in this country .We have spoken about it before, but actually the challenge is bigger now and if we are to meet that challenge, we must remain open and outward looking, while having a proportionate and measured approach to ensuring that the right restrictions are in place for people quarantining.
Finally, even though the perilous situation we face today means we must put so much of our international travel on hold, there is no brake on our ambition to help the world become safer or to do what is our first duty: to safeguard public health, protect the NHS and keep people safe here at home.
Before I call Stuart C. McDonald, let me remind everybody who follows him that there is a three-minute limit on contributions. For those who are delivering theirs outside this place, there is a clock in the bottom right corner of their monitor or device. Please could you keep one eye on that, so that you are not going to be cut off. For everyone who makes a contribution in the Chamber, the usual clocks will be in use.
If the Government do not learn from mistakes they make during this pandemic, those mistakes will be repeated, with the same terrible consequences. Let us be clear: this Government have made significant mistakes on covid security at the border. I accept that some of those mistakes are easier to see now with hindsight, but others should have been and were apparent at the time. Indeed, the UK approach to borders stood out like a sore thumb for significant parts of last year, compared with the actions taken by even neighbouring countries. It is not just me saying that, because the Home Affairs Committee has said it. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) has repeatedly pointed out the flaws in the Home Office response over the past year, as one would expect from such a distinguished and knowledgeable home affairs shadow. I pay tribute to her for that work and look forward to maintaining the challenge she posed to the Home Office on this issue and on many, many others.
Of course, the Home Secretary herself has accepted that the Government got it wrong, saying that she argued for border closures last March. That raises questions about why she stayed in post when she was overruled, rather than arguing for essential border closures from outside the Cabinet. Last week, she accepted that there were
“still too many people coming in”—[Official Report, 27 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 406.]
to the country. That is a stark admission so far into a pandemic. The new measures announced last week by the Home Secretary just about amount to a step in the right direction, but, as is typical of much of the Government’s response to this crisis, it is not a decisive step; it is a hesitant half-measure, when what we needed was bold action.
The Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, has said that the Scottish Government and the SNP believe that
“a comprehensive system of supervised quarantine is required”.
“Comprehensive” is certainly not how we would describe the very limited scheme that the UK Government have drawn up, so we support the Opposition motion. If the Government really want to persuade us that this tentative hotel quarantine policy will genuinely make a difference, Ministers must tell us what estimates they have made of the numbers who will be impacted by these new requirements? How many hotel rooms do they believe will be required? On the other hand, how many thousands of people will continue simply to pass straight through the airports, and out on to public transport and into our towns and cities?
Put simply, we support a more comprehensive scheme because that is what the evidence points to. Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the Home Affairs Committee:
“The places that have had very effective quarantine measures do not ask people to quarantine in their homes.”
So why is the UK not learning more quickly from international best practice? Instead, the UK has offered a half-baked measure that does not bring comfort to the disastrously impacted aviation industry; nor is it decisive enough to appear capable of making any real difference to covid in this country. The Government have tried to operate a timid middle-way compromise, and instead have helped neither public health nor industry. In relation to the South African strain, the stable door was closed half-heartedly, and only after the horse had well and truly bolted.
Both the Scottish and Welsh Governments have expressed concerns that the measure does not go far enough. Although public health measures can take the devolved Governments so far, with border powers and passenger data in the hands of the Home Office, co-operation is required. The preference would be to have strong and consistent quarantine rules across the UK, so I ask Ministers and the Home Secretary to listen and engage very carefully; as and when the devolved Governments seek to go further than the half-baked UK measures, I hope that they will co-operate and provide support.
We need a more comprehensive scheme to protect from covid arrivals at the border. At the same time, we need a bespoke and comprehensive package of support for the aviation industry. From the outset of the pandemic, it was clear that one of the sectors that would be most impacted was aviation. The UK Government clearly felt the same and promised sector-specific support, but the one Government who jumped into instant action to support the sector were the Scottish Government, who provided 100% rates relief for a full year, which has now been extended by at least three months, with the aim of extending it longer. It took the UK Government six months to do anything similar.
With the vast majority of flights grounded, the situation facing the sector is still absolutely dire. Tens of thousands of jobs have gone in the sector, and many that remain have been forced to accept lower terms and conditions. I ask the Government again to support the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) to outlaw that practice. The sad truth is that, without further support, tens of thousands more jobs will go, so the Chancellor must deliver urgent help, including: action on furlough extension; reversing the decision on tax-free shopping; extending rates relief; and much, much more.
Finally, it is important to emphasise that all these issues will be of increasing importance in the months ahead. As we look forward, with some guarded optimism, to getting cases back under control and as vaccines are rolled out, declining domestic transmission means that preventing transmission from international arrivals becomes more important, not less—if we really are serious about suppressing this virus. I dearly hope that the Government are serious about that. If so, they should support this motion.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I am very disappointed with the Labour Front-Bench position on blanket hotel quarantine. Over the last year, I have worked quite collaboratively through the Transport Committee with all Opposition Front Benchers, and this seems a strange turn of events. I hope it is not based on sample opinion polling in certain seats that the Labour party lost, because it does not make any sense or feel consistent. I have a great deal of respect and time for the shadow Home Secretary, but I appeal to him to think again. The measure would decimate the aviation industry. In my couple of minutes, I want to highlight why I believe it would be so difficult.
First, let me say that the answer is what we are doing already: vaccination. By mid-February, we should have vaccinated all the people in this country who represent 90% of the mortality risk. If things go to plan, and they seem to be, we should have taken that to 99% by a couple of months later. That is how to deal with the coronavirus situation: to vaccinate and keep everybody safe in this country, rather than trying to draw a ring of steel.
I am concerned about the ring-of-steel argument. As the shadow Home Secretary said, there would have to be exemptions. Our hauliers, for example, would have to be exempt, and the list would be longer. As soon as we have breached that ring of steel, then, arguably, what is the point of having it in the first place? That is why we are not like New Zealand or Australia. It is much harder for us, with our position in Europe, to be able to keep our borders as secure as the shadow Home Secretary would like.
The other point about a secure international border policy is that it could lull us into a false sense of security. In New Zealand, for example, the vaccination programme will not reach the general public until July. Compare that with this country: we have not tried to shut our doors, but left them partly open, and then started to vaccinate our people to make them safe.
I am really concerned about what this policy would do to the aviation industry. What has become clear from New Zealand and Australia is that, once we bring in this policy, it would be difficult to move away from it. Those countries have no plans to do so for this year. The aviation industry is on its knees. This is the last thing that it needs. We look like we will come through this situation with our great vaccination programme. I urge that we do not bring in blanket approaches such as this, but keep the nuance and look at the rules depending on the risk, which is what we have done very well so far.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), a fellow Select Committee Chair, although I take a very different view from him, based on the evidence that the Home Affairs Committee has heard. This debate is urgent. We need to protect the vaccine programme from new variants, such as those from South Africa and Brazil. Ministers have rightly said that border measures are needed to stop the spread of those new variants, but with news today of the increase in the number of new South African variant cases in the UK, it is clear to us that those measures are not working. The Government have not done enough and we have not learned sufficient lessons from abroad and from the first wave. I urge Ministers to do more.
For a month after the South African variant was found, the only focus was on direct flights, even though our Committee report showed that direct flights were not an issue in the first wave—only 0.1% of cases came from China, but 62% came from France or Spain where there were no restrictions in place. Even now, people returning from high-risk countries are not tested on arrival, still do not have quarantine hotels to go to, and can still go straight onto the tube or train at Heathrow. The promised new plans from the Government still have big holes. The majority of travellers will not be covered by quarantine hotels and, again, they will not be tested on arrival, even though they could have been on long and crowded journeys since their last test several days ago. All the additional police checks in the world will not make a difference if, when the police find that there is nobody home, no further enforcement action is taken.
The UK got things badly wrong the first time round: barely any quarantine; no testing; and all restrictions inexplicably lifted on 13 March so thousands of covid cases were brought back into the country, accelerating the pace and scale of the pandemic. The countries that have controlled covid best—New Zealand, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, and Taiwan—are those that took early firm action at the borders to try to stop any covid cases at all. They are global trading nations, but they took early action and, as a result, kept schools, businesses and communities open and saved so many lives.
There are two ways that the Government could be learning from those countries now: extend quarantine hotels to cover far more travellers, as New Zealand and Australia did, or follow the South Korean approach, which combines additional testing on arrival with a mix of quarantine hotels and designated quarantine transport, much stronger checks on home quarantine, and no trips on public transport. South Korea has lost 1,400 people to covid; we have lost 100,000. If we had our time again in the first wave and had the chance to take much stronger border action to save lives and keep our communities open, we would have done so in a shot, so please let us learn those lessons now as we deal with the new variant.
The past 12 months have been devastating for many people in my constituency and around the economy in different sectors—in hospitality, events, and entertainment. Jobs have virtually disappeared overnight. What has been particularly striking to me over that time is how many of the people in my constituency had been dependent on the travel sector for their job or their business. In a year when international travel has virtually ground to a halt, and it has by comparison with where we were before, their predicament is dreadful. While for many businesses there is some light at the end of the tunnel as the vaccination programme brings forward the day when lockdown restrictions can end, the same cannot right now easily be said for the travel sector. The issue is not about whether we can give people the chance to sun themselves on a beach; it is about the future of a sector that is crucial to our economy and that simply cannot cope with the loss of a second summer season in a row. This impact on a crucial sector is why the motion today is so poorly thought through.
I have to say, reluctantly, that I support the measures the Government have taken to restrict access to the UK from countries most at immediate risk from the new variants of the virus. Of course it is not desirable, but it has to happen. It is right to take a precautionary approach, but imposing these kinds of border restrictions on a blanket basis would have the effect of destroying even more jobs both here and elsewhere for no apparent reason, because the reality is that virus rates are higher here than in many of the countries people are coming from.
The challenge now is to ensure that the restrictions are as short-lived as possible and that we can reopen travel for this vital summer season without the risk of generating a resurgence of the virus in doing so. A solution to this, in my view, is before us and the Government must now take it. Last week, the Health Secretary told me that he was confident that lateral flow tests were a fit and proper way of preventing infection being imported into nursing homes, so why are they not the cornerstone of our strategy to open up airports and other means of travel, not right now, because the current restrictions are necessary, but as part of a plan to reopen the sector properly later this spring? Test people before they depart and test people on arrival. That way, we should not need to quarantine people. If a test result can show infection at the point of arrival and we can back that up with a properly policed quarantine system, there really is no reason why travel cannot reopen later this spring for a proper summer season.
If we do not do that, the result will be waves of job losses in a sector that is vital to the future for all of us. That is why the Opposition are being so thoughtless, in my view, when they call for this blanket lockdown. The consequences will be more businesses going bust and more jobs lost. That we cannot afford any more of than we absolutely have to for health reasons.
From the outbreak of the pandemic, I have taken an extreme precautionary approach, encouraging early, longer and more severe lockdowns. That is why I support the motion before the House today. With 100,000 dead we need decisive action. But yes, we also need the aviation strategy that the Chancellor promised us over nine months ago and that we have yet to see.
To ensure that any system of border control operates effectively at our airports, we need a sufficient number of well-trained professional staff at the immigration passport control points. The team at border control at Heathrow is known for its professionalism and commitment to high standards of service delivery. Many of them are my constituents; in fact, many of them are my neighbours. They have worked throughout the pandemic with some risk. Members may recall that some months ago, tragically, a father and daughter working in this role lost their lives.
Just at a time when we need these staff most and should respect the role they are playing, the management within the Home Office is provoking a strike. The Home Office management has decided, extraordinarily, that this is the time to rush through an imposition of new working rosters that are making it impossible for many staff to work effectively, especially those with disabilities and caring responsibilities. Staff who have been working on the new roster are all reporting that it has been chaos. It has put the operation at risk and made social distancing difficult. There are multiple examples of covid-secure bubbles being breached by managers because of a lack of staffing and the poor organisation of the new fixed rosters.
The Public and Commercial Services union, which represents the staff, has balloted its members. On a 68% turnout, 96.4% voted for strike action. That is how angry they are. The union will now seek a return to the negotiating table to try to resolve the staff issues. No Government should be sanctioning actions by its departmental managers that force their staff to resort to industrial action in this way, especially not in the crisis we now face. I urge the Minister to look into this matter again and intervene to resolve the dispute, so that these dedicated staff can continue to provide the vital service we need to protect our community, especially as the Government, and the Opposition proposals that we are debating, require staff to work effectively and supportively, and to be respected.
It is 12 months since the first cases of covid-19 hit our shores. Back then, I doubt whether many of us could imagine how the virus would affect our lives throughout 2020 and 2021. It has tested our approach to a global pandemic to the full. It has brought out the best in our NHS, our carers and our public services, and in our sense of community, with the many heroes who have stepped up to help others. I get that the situation is unlike anything that Governments have had to deal with in modern times. Decisions are a matter of life and death, and every country has adopted different strategies to deal with covid-19.
It is easy to criticise, and we have got some things right. The approach to trialling and procuring vaccinations, and upscaling roll-out very quickly, is a real success. However, I cannot help but think that we failed to learn from others earlier in the pandemic, and their best practice. I serve on the Home Affairs Committee, and last year we took evidence from officials in Honk Kong, Singapore and New Zealand—three common law jurisdictions that took different, tougher public health approaches early on. They were much quicker at locking down than us, and they all placed strict restrictions on their borders, with enforced quarantine. We knew back then that it was working, which prompts the question why a similar approach was not taken here. For months, our borders have effectively remained open.
We have been lucky so far. The new strains that have been identified still react to the vaccines, but a future strain might not do so. Until we have some control over international spread and global immunisation there remains a risk here in the UK. Life in New Zealand is nearly back to normal: people can gather, kiss, hug, go to pop concerts, fill stadiums, and enjoy life. Our southern hemisphere cousins called it right: tough—very tough—measures at the start; and strict controls at the border to help control the virus in the country and get back to ordinary life more quickly.
We opted for looser lockdowns, polite requests to self-isolate, allowing international travel to continue in large part, an endless cycle of local restrictions, tiers and national lockdowns—but never getting the virus down sufficiently to stop it bouncing back. Tragically, there are over 100,000 dead, each number a real person. The vaccine offers the first ray of light in over 12 months, but it is still not too late to tackle the border issue, alongside a sectoral support package for aviation. The cross-infection of a new mutant strain will set back any progress that we have made in defeating the virus, and that is why I support the motion.
Sadly, there are no shortcuts to dealing with covid. Between June and August 2020, Scotland almost eliminated covid, with minimal community transmission. At the same time, England and Wales were also doing well. That was a real opportunity to consider the impact of the slow response, such as in Italy, and what had worked across the world, including approaches in Asia-Pacific and New Zealand, which had experience of managing similar pathogens in the past. It was also an opportunity for cool heads and collaboration, and for dealing with issues such as the £45 billion allocated early on for testing—that testing, however, was slow to materialise. We know that only 30% of people who should self-isolate do so, given the financial implications of doing so. That amplifies community transmission, and people do not have the financial means to self-isolate. Instead of having porous borders, we could have spent time improving our border biosecurity. That was an early lesson from our friends in New Zealand.
Because we did not do that, we imported a soup of different strains, with limited transmission suppression across the country, which is precisely why new variants are emerging. That is how viruses mutate. Last week’s announcement by the Home Secretary was welcome, but those tougher measures at the UK’s external borders are months overdue and reflect what many other countries have had in place since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite having responsibility for public health, the Scottish Government cannot unilaterally close the border in Scotland.
That brings me to vaccine nationalism, which has been an emerging discussion point in recent days. Fourteen per cent. of the world has 83% of the vaccine stock. We urgently need to correct that, not just because it is unjust, but for the long-term management of covid, without which there will be no long-haul holidays and no meaningful aviation recovery, and while the JCVI and Governments across the UK work on vaccine deployment, that will be for nought if our borders remain porous.
On test to fly, many lateral flow test devices are insufficiently sensitive. That is accepted by the Scottish Government, but not by the UK, and it is a mistake in the making. The PM’s bulldog optimism has not stopped covid. Only by learning from others across the world, deploying corrective measures at our borders, and working to distribute vaccines equitably will we beat covid. The burden and the solution are shared across the world.
When I saw the motion tabled by the Labour party on covid security at the borders, I was surprised, given the party’s remarks on the subject not so long ago. Only last summer, members of the shadow Cabinet were arguing for the Government’s quarantine measures to be lessened, and they later claimed in the House that those measures were a mere “blunt tool”. Their flip-flopping is a further example of their hollow opportunism, and Labour Members have relied on hindsight in their public statements throughout the course of the pandemic.
Let us look at the facts regarding the Government’s actions. Everyone arriving in the UK is required to isolate in either a hotel or at home. The Government are taking steps to ensure that those returning from high-risk countries do so in compliance with the isolation measures. Those include greater physical checks to ensure compliance during the mandatory isolation period. That was introduced hand in hand with the requirement for each and every passenger from abroad to present a negative covid-19 test result before departing for England. Furthermore, the suspension of all travel corridors is evidence to my constituents of the far-reaching steps being taking to tackle the threat of newly found and ever more infectious variants of the coronavirus.
Let us be clear about the nature of this threat. These measures, which I believe are far-reaching, are vital to tackle that threat, which risks undermining the roll-out of our vaccine programme. Given the world-leading success of our vaccination programme, we must do all we can to protect it. The Government continue to do that by using some of the strongest measures in the world. Those measures have allowed us to deliver a vaccination programme that delivers more than 250 jabs a minute—a daily rate that is higher than anywhere in Europe—and a programme that will have offered everyone in the top four priority groups a jab by the middle of this month. Why would we want to undermine that success?
The United Kingdom is a world leader in so many areas, and we should take pride in our ability to create and manufacture the world’s first coronavirus vaccine, which has already been given to more than 8 million people. Let us work together in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, without party political positioning. We need to move forward with pride in our nation, build back better, and see the global Britain that we have long awaited.
A year ago, when we first became aware of the novel coronavirus emerging from Wuhan province, countries across the globe had the opportunity—indeed, the responsibility—to plan how they might have to address such a contagious virus. The UK had a number of advantages, as one of the wealthiest states in the world, and with our scientific expertise and irreplaceable NHS, with its committed, albeit overworked and underpaid, staff. Yet our death rate has become among the very worst in the world. Some day we will have a full inquiry into what mistakes were made. The Government do not seem to want to learn any lessons until the pandemic is over, but one among the litany of measures that were introduced too slowly to be effective, or not at all, will surely be that we squandered the advantage we have as an island nation in properly controlling our borders. Last week, I asked the Home Secretary why we could not have followed New Zealand’s example of establishing early, strict border and quarantine measures. She gave no good answer. We recently passed the tragic total of 100,000 deaths, while New Zealand has had a total of 25 and none since September. In addition to that protection, the public in New Zealand have had the freedom to live their lives in ways we can only watch with envy from our lockdowns, dealing with correspondence from increasingly distressed and depressed constituents in lockdown 3.
Our Government did not take early and decisive action like fellow island nation New Zealand. At every stage, they have acted too late and too weakly. I understand the dilemma that Ministers wrestled with—health versus the economy—but that was always a false choice. Just as we have suffered one of the world’s worst covid mortality impacts, so we have been dragged into one of the worst economic consequences. Half measures have helped neither our health nor our wealth.
As a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and a proud trade unionist, I find concerns raised by Government Members about the impact on the travel sector to be somewhat disingenuous. The consequence of not acting is to condemn every single other sector to the chaos and continuing misery of indefinite rolling lockdowns and the risk of a new variant that takes us back to square one, rendering their sacrifices worthless. We can give the travel and aviation sectors targeted support, which the Government have failed to provide, as well as biosecuring our borders.
Labour’s motion today calls for decisive action—for closing the stable door before the horse has bolted for a change and introducing a comprehensive hotel quarantine system for all arrivals into the UK, rather than waiting for fresh variants to be identified and then applying measures to those countries once it is too late, or leaving the door open for people to make their journeys via countries without such restrictions in order to get around the measures.
I am pleased to be able to make this speech, because the Opposition motion would have us treat people from countries where there is virtually no covid in the same way as those from countries with very high levels. It makes little sense to me to place people from New Zealand in hotels. Any threat created by their travel, for example, can be dealt with by a period of self-isolation. I applaud the Government’s logical and proportionate approach. Of course, as with all things associated with covid, we need to keep every measure under continuous review, but right now the logical approach is to ban flights from areas of very high covid levels and for hotels to be required where appropriate.
The Opposition motion also lacks logic. The literal wording of the motion has clearly not been thought through. It requires “all arrivals” in the UK to quarantine in a hotel. It actually states:
“That this House calls on the Government to immediately introduce a comprehensive hotel quarantine system for all arrivals into the UK”—
not some, but all arrivals. The shadow Minister said there would be exemptions for hauliers. That does not change what we will actually vote on. The motion provides for no exemptions, so this measure would have to include pilots, air cabin staff, and any engineer working in aviation or in the channel tunnel. The motion would entail all those people, when they arrived in the UK, going into a hotel for 10 days. It mentions no exemptions—not even for people bringing the Pfizer vaccine to the UK from Belgium.
Either the Labour party supports the literal wording of the motion and wants to stop every person coming to the UK whatever the circumstances, or it does not and the motion is just worded for political effect, highlighting the ridiculous nature of Opposition day debates now. It has to be one or the other. We are asked to take Opposition day debates seriously. Labour has tried to change what we are voting on, and only nine of its Back Benchers applied to speak in the debate. It clearly does not take its own debates very seriously.
We therefore cannot support this motion. The current measures are logical and proportionate. I believe it is right that we check why passengers are travelling to avoid unlawful and unnecessary trips. We have been criticised on one occasion for being too strict, and on another for being too lax. This virus is a moving beast and we need to be flexible too.
Anyone can play party politics with this virus, but what is needed is a constructive approach. It is positive that hotels are being used in this way, given that they are not being used very much at the moment. We must also bear in mind the impact on our aviation industry, so I welcome the measures that are being brought in there, but I do not welcome this motion.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this important debate. I heard the Health Minister’s contribution. It is very interesting that this is a Home Office Opposition day, but we do not have anyone from the Home Office ministerial team responding to it. I think that is very telling. Just a few days ago, the Home Secretary claimed that she is an advocate of tougher restrictions than those that her own Government introduced in March. I suspect that the reason that there is not a Home Office Minister responding to a shadow Home Office Opposition day debate is that they could not find one willing to speak up for the Government’s policies. The Home Secretary knows that it is her responsibility to protect our borders and keep people safe, and I suspect that she did not want to speak up for the Government’s policies in this area.
The Health Minister said that the Government need to do everything they can to protect people, but they have failed to do that. Britain has the worst death rate in the world. It has the worst death rate per capita of any major country over the course of the virus. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) was absolutely right to say that, as an island nation, we should have had a huge advantage over our European counterparts, but it has been wasted by the Government’s policies.
Going right back to the start, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has said consistently, the Government have been too slow to lock down and too slow every step of the way. Two weeks before we went into lockdown, we were inviting thousands of football supporters from Madrid to a packed stadium in Liverpool. We had people coming from all kinds of countries that we knew had very serious covid rates, with no checks and balances whatever.
The Government should not expect anyone to trust them when they say, “We’re taking a proportionate approach. You can believe that things will be okay if you leave it with us,” because every step of the way, things have not been okay when we have left the Government to pursue things as they want. I very much welcome the motion introduced by my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, and I will be supporting it with great enthusiasm.
Everyone in this House, I hope, is clear that we have one common aim: to get the virus under control, and in doing so get back to normal as quickly as possible and save as many lives as we can. For every quarter of a million vaccinations, about 1,000 lives are saved. Every day sooner that we get the economy back open saves us about £1 billion, and crucially jobs and businesses will be saved up and down the country.
We achieve that by doing two things. First, we must vaccinate the people—the most vulnerable first—and drive down the number of deaths and hospitalisations. Secondly, we must control the movement of people and stop the virus spreading. We have done a huge amount in the UK to limit the spread, and I know that many people are very frustrated by some of the restrictions, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. We also have to control the spread from elsewhere. I welcome the measures to ensure that those from red flag countries stay in hotels, but in truth they are just building on what is already in place. For many months, anyone from any country has had to quarantine. Now, given the new variants, it seems sensible that those from the most at-risk countries need to quarantine in hotels.
What irks me is the way the Opposition are behaving. The Leader of the Opposition, when in the shadow Cabinet of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), said at the Dispatch Box:
“Why would we want to be outside the European Medicines Agency”?—[Official Report, 31 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 827.]
It was a rhetorical question from a learned Member used to rhetoric in the courtroom. Why indeed? Last year, the shadow Europe Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), suggested that opting out of the European vaccine system would be akin to acting like “dumb and dumber”. The Leader of the Opposition posed too clever by half, seemingly unanswerable questions, but now we have a clear answer. Out there in the country they can see why. Britain avoided a bumbling, bureaucratic living nightmare of an EU scheme. Britain’s vaccination rates are four or five times the EU average. Now the Leader of the Opposition pretends he never wanted to be in any EU vaccine scheme, but the public will decide on the facts.
Today, the shadow Home Secretary comes here to attack the Government, yet he said in a Labour press release on 7 June last year that we must have a
“more targeted approach that allows the blunt tool of 14-day quarantine to be lifted”.
Today, Labour Members have tried to say that it is not hard enough, and that that has always been their position. It is like Labour is trying to conduct a thought experiment with the British people. Schrödinger’s cat has become Starmer’s policy. The British people deserve straight answers at a time of national crisis. That is what they are getting from the Government, and it is a shame that Her Majesty’s Opposition keep flip-flopping all over the place.
It has taken over a year for the Government eventually to implement a limited form of quarantine at the borders—a glacial pace of decision making that we can ill afford as the pandemic continues. The recent announcement was yet another half-measure and an all-too-familiar fudge of a thing—half-done, and that badly.
The evidence, of course, speaks for itself. Countries that locked down comprehensively and promptly have so far had better covid-19 outcomes. The Prime Minister’s “softly, softly” approach prompts the question: whose interest does this Government serve? His alignment with select business interests has distorted public health efforts from the start, from the billions spent on dodgy private procurement contracts to the ill-fated eat out to help out scheme, which helped to raise the tide of the pandemic into the second wave.
Despite the great effort of the people of the four nations to endure another testing lockdown, the Prime Minister sees fit to allow most travellers to enter the UK without undergoing strict quarantine measures, overruling in the process the wishes of both his Home and Health Secretaries. This policy ignores the risk posed by people arriving from overseas while carrying existing variants from non-high-risk countries, and there is no guarantee that this approach will safeguard against other variants emerging in non-high-risk countries.
Not only are the new measures weak in their practical application, but they are morally weak as well. It was of course Edmund Burke of the Conservative party who first coined the phrase “geographical morality” to describe the impunity with which the British elite acted abroad in countries under the yoke of the British empire in the 18th century. Under the new broader measures, that concept has been reversed. It is now business leaders and the rich from both home and abroad who can act with relative impunity, free to travel in and out of the UK while the majority of us live on under strict lockdown. The Government cannot shake their commitment to the ideology of hyper-individualism. Whenever possible, they prioritise the liberty of predominantly wealthy individuals above the common good, stubbornly ignoring the truth that covid-19 has laid bare for all to see: the deep interconnectedness of our society and the planet.
As has been the case since the beginning, these measures are part of a wave of blinkered wishful thinking set once again to come crashing down on the rocks of reality. That reality being that the virus has no interest in notions of individual liberty, and these futile attempts to apply quarantine measures selectively equally mean nothing to the virus. Only strict quarantine for all arrivals and proper support for hospitality and business will see us safely through.
The Government must finally act on securing our borders by introducing a comprehensive plan to protect the country against the import of new strains and maximise the effectiveness of the vaccination programme. With that in mind, however, it must not be overlooked that increased border measures come with increased pressure on the aviation industry and staff in the sector.
Earlier in January, the Home Office imposed a fixed roster on the Heathrow primary control point in what is widely viewed as a rushed implementation that has led to equality concerns, with many staff with disabilities and caring responsibilities unable to work to the new roster. As outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), that led to officers processing passengers at Heathrow passport control points to vote overwhelmingly for strike action over the imposition. Feedback from PCS union members on the primary control point has described the newly introduced fixed roster as a “shambles” and “chaotic”. Additionally, Border Force is currently only spot-checking 10% of all passenger locator forms, which provide the necessary information for quarantine compliance. The Government must ensure that sufficient support and resources are made available so that border staff are able to do their jobs properly.
Alongside this, the Government must announce a sector-specific support package for aviation. The largest aviation union, Unite, suggests [Inaudible.] already lost their jobs. It is about time that the Government stepped in to put in place a sectoral deal, like they promised, and protect those jobs. The Government must make good on their promises, act fast, and step in where necessary to protect employment and our economy across all sectors. However, this must not be an unconditional bail-out for companies. Tackling climate change needs to be central to this support, both for the aviation sector and for building back greener across our whole economy. I hope everyone across this House will support this motion to ensure a robust plan is in place to protect jobs and set clear commitments to help tackle the climate emergency.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne). It is a shame that so few Labour MPs applied to participate in their own Opposition day debate: there are only nine on the list, and that is sad. I wonder whether their heart is not really in it.
The subject of this debate is a matter that affects the constituents of Derbyshire Dales, who have raised it with me on numerous occasions since the commencement of the pandemic. We want proportionate border control: that is essential. The United Kingdom already has some of the strongest measures in the world to prevent new strains of coronavirus from entering the country. At this stage, the restrictions are well balanced and sufficient; they are firm, thought through, and nuanced.
The Government are focused on protecting the UK’s leading vaccination programme—a programme that we should all be very proud of—and reducing the risk of the new strain of the virus, or any new strain, being transmitted by somebody coming into the UK. That is why the Government announced further action to strengthen these measures. They are also looking at health measures, reducing passenger flow, increased police enforcement, and ensuring that anyone returning from a red-list country completes their quarantine at a designated hotel. This was further improved on 18 January, when all travel corridors within the UK were suspended, meaning that all international arrivals who have departed from, or transited through, any country outside the common travel area in the previous 10 days will be required to self-isolate immediately for 10 days on arrival. This includes British and Irish nationals.
I am concerned that Labour’s position on borders has swung from one extreme to the other. First, the Opposition criticised the Government for imposing stricter border measures in the summer, then called for quarantine to be ceased, and then claimed that our measures are not strong enough. Once again, Labour is playing politics at a national level—it is good opportunism, but I believe the public see through it, and that they see the flip-flopping on this issue.
I am concerned by the Opposition’s suggestion that there should be a blanket provision that all arrivals to the United Kingdom should quarantine. Being a lawyer, I look at the words, and this is clearly an ill-thought-through suggestion. There is no mention of exceptions in the wording. There is, of course, a limit on suitable hotels and accommodation, and if the Labour proposal were taken forward, the cost would be very high. Are the Opposition really saying that only those of our citizens who can afford to stay in a hotel can return home? I do not think they have really thought this through. Also, if there are very low-risk countries, are we saying that arrivals from those countries should needlessly spend that time and that money in hotels? There needs to be a sense of proportion.
The Government have acted swiftly in providing increased support to the genomics industry to help identify new covid variants abroad, for the benefit of mankind as a whole. We are an outward-looking nation—a trading nation—and we are helping the world through this work. It would be inconsistent with this global assistance to impose an unfocused blanket ban, so I will not be agreeing with the motion.
Time and again during this pandemic the Government’s incompetence has cost lives. They have been too slow to lockdown, too slow to build an effective test-and-trace system, and too slow to secure our borders. Despite the UK tragically passing the covid death toll of over 100,000 people, the highest in Europe, the Government still have yet to learn the lessons. We must make sure that our borders are secure with a comprehensive hotel quarantine system for all arrivals to the UK. That is why I support the motion.
The Government have belatedly introduced a partial quarantine system, but that includes only 33 countries. We need a hotel quarantine regime that goes further and covers all countries. The police force is stretched and lacks the capacity to check that travellers are quarantining at home. Since quarantine requirements were introduced on 8 June, only 332 fines have been issued in England to travellers failing to self-isolate. Last November, Sky reported that the police took no action against 1,400 overseas travellers who may have broken quarantine rules. That just goes to show the challenge that the police face in taking enforcement action without a more effective quarantine system.
We need to learn from other countries on how they have tackled the pandemic and how they have managed to reduce the infection rates and save lives, ranging from Australia and New Zealand to Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. Even developing countries have a more effective quarantine system using hotels and other facilities, so the idea that we cannot do this because we do not have the resources is ridiculous and needs to be addressed. As many hon. Members have stated, there are new variants that put the vaccination effort at risk. This month the Health Secretary said:
“The new variant I really worry about is the one that is out there that hasn’t been spotted.”
Our biggest defence against these new variants is strict border controls through effective hotel quarantine regimes.
Throughout this crisis, the Government have been one step behind. It is time they took the advice of the chief scientist, who says that the lesson is to go earlier and act fast. It is vital in order to protect the vaccination programme we have set up that we ensure that our borders are secure. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the scientists, the innovators, the NHS workers and all the volunteers who are vaccinating the population right now. We cannot afford for that work to be undermined by not securing our borders. The Government must act; they should adopt this motion. That is why I support the motion.
It is extraordinary to be taking part in an Opposition day debate that is so poorly attended by the official Opposition. This is their opportunity to hold the Government to account on covid security at UK borders, and only nine of their MPs have turned up—nine out of over 50 Back-Bench speakers. I suspect that it is because they know that their leadership does not really have a policy on this issue. In the summer, Labour said that there was too much covid security at the border. In the words of the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon):
“Labour—like families and businesses up and down the country—are keen for the government’s quarantine measures to be lessened”.
The shadow Home Secretary said that the Government should be
“putting in place a more targeted approach that allows the blunt tool of 14-day quarantine to be lifted safely and quickly.”
But now there is too little covid security at the border. Far from quarantine being a blunt instrument, more of it is needed. The Opposition are the Goldilocks of border restrictions, swinging between too much and too little, depending on which they believe will generate the most favourable headlines.
In contrast, this Government have a strong package of covid security measures at the border. We require everyone to present a negative covid test on arrival in the UK. Everyone who travels to the UK must self-isolate for up to 10 days. We have banned flights from the highest-risk areas. British citizens travelling back from these countries will need to self-isolate in a hotel. We are checking the reason for travel at the border. We are increasing enforcement there and increasing physical checks by the police on those self-isolating at home.
We know that we must act fast to contain new variants, whether they are home grown or from overseas. That is why we saw surge testing rolled out today in areas of the country where the new South African strain has been detected, though I note that none of those found to be infected have travel links to the area. That is why we have thrown the kitchen sink, table, chairs and all the utensils at the UK’s vaccine programme, which is powering on at pace, having to date vaccinated nearly 9 million people.
There you have it, Madam Deputy Speaker: the Government are working hard to protect their citizens. The Labour party does not know what to do. It does not have a coherent border policy. I know it, the public know it, and even its own MPs know it. That is why so few of them showed up today.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in this most important debate, as the Minister called it. The Liberal Democrats will support the official Opposition at its conclusion. We agree with the motion, and we welcome the limited steps that the Government have announced, though of course it is, yet again, too little, too late. I would say in passing that there must surely be a limit to the number of times we can hear Government Ministers “welcome this most important debate”—we have had two already today—and then see them decline to put their MPs through the Division Lobbies at the end of it. If it is that important, they should surely take part in the Division at the end.
It was unfortunate that we did not get to hear from the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who was originally on the call list to speak. She has apparently been given the opportunity to spend more time with the national executive committee of her party. Time will tell whether it is an astute move of party management to give her time on her hands, but I am sure that those of us who regularly take part in such debates will miss her contributions from the Front Bench.
All around the world it is there for anyone who cares to look to see that those who are most successful in tackling the spread of the virus are those who crack down hardest and earliest. Unfortunately, in this country we have a Government that can always be relied on to do the right thing, but only once they have tried everything else. We hear today the news that the South African variant of the virus is now to be found in several United Kingdom communities. It is already too late to keep it out, but it not too late to stem the flow and to mitigate its worst effects.
The frustration that I have, and that I hear from my constituents time and again, is that the Government are prepared to spend eye-watering sums of money, but then undermine the effectiveness of that by trimming at the edges. If ever there were a case of the ship being spoiled and lost for a ha’p’orth of tar, it is seen in the way in which the Government act. We know—this is the biggest frustration of all—that in a few weeks’ time we will be back here when the Government will do exactly what the Opposition parties are asking them to do today, but by that time we will see the consequences of their misjudgment, which will be measured in lives that have been lost unnecessarily. That, surely, is a tragedy for us all.
The failure of the Government to fully secure our borders against covid-19 from the start of the pandemic has undermined the effectiveness of the UK’s public health measures. I support a hotel quarantine system, but it will not be effective in preventing the spread of covid-19 unless it encompasses all arrivals into the UK. The limited quarantine restrictions imposed on travel from only 30 or so countries have come too late and, with 21,000 travellers currently entering the UK every day, are just not sufficient to safeguard the advances being made by the vaccine roll-out.
We are at a critical point in the vaccination process, and we cannot risk importing covid-19 cases and variants that are resistant to the vaccine.
While public health must be the priority, alongside greater public health restrictions must come greater economic support for airports. The Australian and New Zealand Governments have backed up aviation shutdowns with thorough aviation-specific support packages, but here in the UK, the Government’s sector support package is half-hearted. Luton airport in my constituency has been hit hard by the pandemic, and the impact is having a cumulative effect on our local and regional economy, as the airport supports more than 10,000 jobs in supply chain businesses.
As it is owned by Luton Borough Council, significant income from the airport is used to directly fund local services and voluntary organisations. However, Luton airport is only eligible to apply for around £5 million from the recently announced airport and ground operations support scheme, which equates to only 6% of its annual fixed costs—a drop in the ocean. The meagre support offered smacks of a Government who do not fully understand the aviation business cycle and the current precarity of the sector, given the extent of the fixed costs. As the Airport Operators Association states:
“With airports effectively closed again by the Government’s travel restrictions, much more significant support is now needed.”
Aviation needs Government to commit to extending the business support and job retention schemes, to extending the airport and ground operations support scheme to cover 2022 and to alleviating airports from regulatory and policing charges for 2021-22. To help airports bounce back, there needs to be phased support while commercial activity is rebuilt—support that facilitates the protection of jobs and provides an ideal opportunity to accelerate the transition towards green technology.
On a final note, with the recent announcement that Public and Commercial Services Union members working for Border Force at Heathrow have voted for industrial action against the imposition of fixed-term rosters, I urge the Transport Secretary to work with the Home Secretary to ensure that the pandemic is not being used as a cover to force through new working arrangements.
One of the great pleasures of recent weeks has been to see lines of people queueing up outside in Market Harborough and up in Oadby to get their vaccines against the coronavirus. It has been an inspirational effort, involving everyone from Britain’s amazing scientists to NHS workers—the doctors and nurses who are rolling out the fastest vaccination programme anywhere in Europe. We have now managed to vaccinate more than France, Spain and Italy put together. It is a fantastic effort, where we really are among the world-leaders.
With that inspirational background in mind, and that success that is bringing us closer every day to getting back to normal—[Inaudible.] Of course there must be support for people in the transport sector who are badly affected by this, and I welcome the fact that somewhere between £2.5 billion and £3 billion of aid has been given to the air transport sector alone, but we are right to tighten the borders to protect the effort we have made on vaccinations.
It is right that we are bringing in the new 10-day quarantine, with the option to go to five if people—[Inaudible.] I welcome the extra policing—[Inaudible.] I encourage Ministers, in all the different things they are doing, to get things in place and stand ready to go further as appropriate—[Inaudible.] I think that the red list and the hotel quarantine is an excellent idea, and I commend what Ministers are doing there. We are learning from the—[Inaudible.] All have had in common strong health borders, so it is great to see that Ministers will stand ready and will, I am sure, add to that list and tighten that regime further if necessary.
It is also very good to be bringing in the new requirement that people have to have a negative test within three days of travelling to the UK. Again, let us bring that in —it is an excellent measure—and stand ready to tighten the nut further if necessary. That could perhaps be through, in countries where it is possible, adding a lateral flow test or doing other things to add to the health border.
Overall, I congratulate Ministers on the decisive steps they are taking. I think it is good to be bringing in these health borders as Britain, now leading the world in vaccinations, tries to get back to normal in a safe way, protecting lives. We have seen today the new South African variant arriving in the UK. That is a warning to us all and shows just why these measures are so desperately needed. I support what Ministers are doing, and I stand ready to support them as they go further and tighten the nut.
The covid-19 pandemic has heralded a challenging period for the aviation sector, and the new increased measures announced for the UK border last week will only make this situation more challenging for businesses and jobs in the weeks to come. There is a very clear and pressing need to increase the level of business support for aviation and aerospace companies to help them survive this pandemic. The Scottish Government have provided support to the sector within their available powers. However, the UK Government can and must do a lot more both in helping to strip out the fixed costs for the industry and in allowing the industry to invest and plan for the future.
My party has been consistent in calling for tough measures to be taken at the UK border in recent months. We now know that UK Ministers are planning to set up a hotel quarantine scheme for people arriving in the UK from 30 red list countries, yet the Home Office has still to provide full detail of the criteria that will be used either to add countries to or to remove them from its list, or of how passengers can be prevented from flying into the UK via a third country to get round the quarantine requirement. This matters. Last May, Sir Patrick Vallance told the Health and Social Care Committee:
“One of the things that looks clear is that early in March the UK got many different imports of virus from many different places”.
All too often throughout the pandemic, the UK Government have been susceptible to magical thinking, taking the path of least resistance only to pay a much heavier price later. With mutations in the virus, there are huge dangers inherent in only partially closing the door, as the UK Government propose. We desperately need to get ahead of this virus with supervised quarantine to allow the vaccination programme to do its job of saving lives. The lesson that we should have learned through this pandemic is that the best way to save lives and to protect jobs is to act early and to act decisively. The SNP has a strong preference in that regard for our having quarantine rules that work right across the UK.
The Scottish Government cannot unilaterally close the border, but believe that a comprehensive system of supervised quarantine is required. We are acutely aware that any measures taken that are significantly out of line with the rest of the UK might risk displacing travel to other airports, so we very strongly take a four-nations approach. However, we cannot get away from the fact that the UK Government have so far failed to go far enough in closing the door to further infections from overseas, and if the UK Government will not act, then the Scottish Government must. I look forward to hearing tomorrow about the tougher supervised quarantine measures that we judge are necessary to protect public health in Scotland. As so often in the past, where the Scottish Government have led, the UK Government eventually follow. I hope that, in the interests of us all, they are not far behind in doing so.
I welcome the news today that the vaccine roll-out to care homes has allegedly been completed. It is a shining light in an otherwise bleak landscape of failures by this Government to get on top of this pandemic, support the NHS, protect livelihoods and save lives.
The delay by this Government in implementing effective track, trace and isolate for those travelling to the UK from abroad has left gaping holes in our defences against the virus. These holes risk undermining the progress we have made with our vaccine roll-out. Limiting protective measures to travellers from just a handful of countries undermines the huge sacrifices our communities have made by risking exposing us to potentially vaccine-resistant covid-19 strains as they emerge around the globe. Recent statistics show that about 21,000 people are entering the UK every day, each one risking the introduction and transmission of a dangerous new variant. Under the current policy, by the time new strains emerge, it will already be too late to take action to protect ourselves. This approach has no clear basis in science, and I call on the Government to heed the warnings and expand their quarantine programme to include all travellers from abroad before it is too late.
I want to take this opportunity to ask the Home Secretary what steps are being taken to resolve the Department’s industrial dispute with Border Force staff at Heathrow airport. They have just voted for strike action, and I would like to state my solidarity with their cause. This action risks further disruption to covid security and protections, and I urge the Home Office to resume negotiations with the PCS to find a resolution to protect our workers and travellers.
Last month, the National Audit Office found that the £22 billion test and trace scheme had failed to reach enough contacts and that only 40% of tests were returned within 24 hours, which is well below the Government target. The current quarantine checks, which have been outsourced to Sitel, are reaching just 3% of UK arrivals, leaving us effectively completely unprotected and exposed to worrying new strains of covid coming in from overseas. Can the Minister explain exactly what has led to this failure by these companies, what action the Government are taking to penalise those contractors that have not met their responsibilities and what the Government intend to do now to improve these dire statistics? Sitel and Serco have been had millions of pounds out of the public purse.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—SAGE—has warned that our so-called world-beating test and trace system has had only a marginal impact on reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Rather than mobilising existing and effective public health expertise, the Government have chosen to put dogmatic ideology over public health. They have now spent a budget larger than those for our policing and fire services combined, handing out multimillion-pound contracts to big private outsourcing farms that have failed time and again to deliver. We must limit international travel, alongside introducing a support package for the aviation sector focused on employment and environmental protections.
We have heard a number of criticisms from the Opposition tonight. In opening, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said that we had left our country’s doors unlocked. He pointed to the border controls between 1 January and 23 March, when only 273 people were formally quarantined. What he did not say was that, at that time, neither the World Health Organisation nor the chief medical officer or the chief scientific officer were giving any advice to the contrary. In fact, when Professor Whitty appeared before the Health and Social Care Committee on 9 December, he said that he could not have done anything different. He said that the “data streams were incomplete” and that
“we did not realise how widespread it was in Europe, because there wasn’t testing in many of the European countries. We knew it was in Italy, but we did not realise how extensive it was in Spain and France for a while. That is an example of lack of information.”
So quite what sort of a crystal ball the Opposition think we should have been using has never been made clear.
When the Government imposed quarantine, the Opposition laid into us again. On 3 June, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport asked the Home Secretary:
“Can the Home Secretary explain the evidence she has seen that underpins her decision to introduce a blanket 14-day quarantine”?—[Official Report, 3 June 2020; Vol. 676, c. 878.]
Another Opposition Member put it this way to the Home Secretary:
“The horse has bolted…She will not be able to screen people at ports, she cannot track them when they leave the airports, she cannot enforce quarantine when people get to their homes…so she will not be protecting anybody.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2020; Vol. 676, c. 876.]
Today, when we are taking a targeted approach and enforcing quarantine by placing arrivals from high-risk countries in hotels, we are under attack again. Labour Members say nothing about whether they agree with our policy of requiring all arrivals to produce a negative covid test or our policy of increased police enforcement. They say nothing about what scientific evidence they are relying on to say that we are choosing the wrong strategy.
At every stage of the pandemic, Labour’s approach has been to look at the Tories and suggest something different. When something goes wrong, it is a Tory failure, and when something goes right, anyone deserves praise but the Tories. To illustrate this, the hon. Member for Torfaen tonight praised the scientists and the many other people responsible for the vaccine programme. Whether the Opposition like it or not, it was Tory decision making, a Tory procurement exercise, a Tory logistical operation and a Tory vaccines Minister that have enabled 9.2 million vaccinations to get into the arms of some of the most vulnerable citizens in this country in a vaccination exercise that has been as moving as it has been magnificent, and this Conservative Government can rightly feel proud of that.
I welcome the recent announcements by the Home Secretary to implement additional public health measures at our borders, as recommended to the Government by the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), and of which I am a member. However, the Government’s announcement last week was, as we have seen time and again throughout this pandemic, too little, too late. It did not go far enough. The APPG recommends that quarantining at regulated locations should apply to arrivals from all countries, and that testing should be done on arrival at the airport and subsequently. Such measures have proved successful for countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand—just compare their case and death rates with those of the UK.
On arrival at the airport, the myriad private options for testing are confusing and the rules are perverse. Just this weekend, I received an email from a Whitton resident who had chosen not to participate in the test to release scheme, because of the prohibitive costs of a private test, and to self-isolate at home for 10 days instead. She was subsequently offered an NHS test as part of a research programme, yet was told that an NHS test delivering a negative result would still require the full 10-day isolation but that exactly the same test provided privately, at great expense, on day five would result in immediate release if negative. I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on whether that policy is based on scientific or medical advice.
Although the NHS should be praised for making excellent progress with the vaccination programme roll-out, without much firmer controls at our borders it is like having the heating on with the windows open. Today’s announcement is testament to that, and the costs and sacrifices of lockdown are immense, so let us not squander those gains. We will be able to emerge safely from lockdown only with a combination of tougher controls at our borders, a functioning test, trace and isolate system, and vaccination.
Having a constituency so close to Heathrow, I must make a few remarks on support for the aviation sector, which needs to come with clear environmental conditions. Many of my constituents work in the aviation and travel sectors, and have lost their jobs or been at risk of losing their jobs under draconian fire and rehire schemes, which ought to be outlawed, but which the Government have refused to take action on. The airport and ground operations scheme provides limited welcome relief but does not go far enough and was finally implemented only last week. It is clear that the aviation sector will probably never fully recover, and even then it will take a long time to partially recover. A sector-specific package is needed, with strong green environmental strings attached, alongside a comprehensive programme of retraining and reskilling, and investment in green transport and infrastructure.
This issue means a lot to the representatives in Northern Ireland, not simply from the aerospace industry and tourism angle, but because of the very concept of border security. I represent a constituency that has been affected and devastated by the lack of security on the border. Although this is a different battle, the stakes are the same: the preservation of life. Over the weekend, we have seen at first hand the need for this House to regulate our security, safety and access to medication, after the threats of Europe to the supply of vaccines to Northern Ireland. That is not a surprise to me; I have warned in this House before about passing the Northern Ireland protocol, and this is why my colleagues and I voted against it. I am aware that today we must and should focus on health and borders in respect of a different remit, but I could not let a debate that mentioned the UK border take place without crying out for UK parity, and for a redress of the wrongs perpetrated against the UK, and specifically Northern Ireland, by the Northern Ireland protocol. I urge every Member of this House to take responsibility and join us in urging immediate change.
When the decision was made to impose UK-wide travel restrictions, I understood and agreed with the rationale, and I joined the queue of MPs frantically contacting the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it was known at that time, to get constituents home. I understood the need to provide protection as best as we could so as not to overwhelm the NHS. However, we must also determine restrictions on an individual country basis. It is clear that we must support aviation and aerospace companies now if more strict measures for the border are implemented, which all but close the aviation sector. Airlines will not have the capital to invest in new aircraft, making the road to recovery for the UK aerospace sector harder and longer without Government support. So to help companies plan long-term investment—the Minister referred to this earlier—in the next generation of greener aircraft in the UK, the Government need to present an exit strategy or a road map for the measures at the border limiting overseas travel. We need the Government to back the sector with specific support now or risk the sector falling in the UK.
We have also been making clear the need for greater co-operation on travel logs from the Republic of Ireland. Although indications have arisen only in the past week that the information will finally be shared, this brings me back to the concerns I have about the traffic flow, which has allowed those with all kinds of variants of covid to cross the border on the Irish side. Although I understand that the Garda Síochána will decide to prosecute those over the border, what has been made abundantly clear is that there is a border that can be enforced when it suits, and safety and the isolation of covid is needed by us all. I ask the Home Office to establish more formalised rules regarding the Irish connections through Shannon and Dublin. If a British person from Newtownards can be questioned for travelling to the mainland for a family funeral, there is a necessity that the same safety measures are in place to stop anyone arriving internationally from Dublin and coming to Northern Ireland.
I have two requests to make to the Home Office: secure the Northern Ireland border, as it is securing mainland GB; and further, work with other Departments to ensure a thriving aerospace and tourism industry post-pandemic. They are not easy asks, I know, but they are absolutely vital.
My constituency is home to Birmingham airport and there is nothing that I would love more than for people to be able to go on holiday, for things to return to normal, and for the airport to be the bustling economic heart of the region that it was before covid. However, that is not the reality that we are in.
Throughout the pandemic, the health of our country has been at the heart of the Government’s decision making. During the last 12 months, in my view, the Government have taken robust action. I speak of the Government restricting travel from a list of countries in February. In March, the Prime Minister told people to stay at home and to travel only for essential purposes. In May, we experienced further measures, which included a 14-day period of self-isolation for those who travelled back to the UK, passenger locator forms and fines for those who broke the rules. In July, we saw travel corridors introduced, which were kept under constant review. In short, our approach evolved as the scientific data and the global understanding of the pandemic evolved.
As we continue to move forward towards vaccinating the entire British public, we must take difficult decisions that require tough measures. That is why the latest measures of restrictions were announced, and I support them. It can only be a positive step forward that the police have increased checks to ensure that travellers are complying with self-isolation rules, but the UK continues to refuse entry from a number of countries subject to the travel ban and has introduced of a managed isolation process for those who cannot be refused entry to the UK. This new process, which uses hotels, will require individuals to self-isolate for 10 days. I welcome these new measures, as I believe that they will go a long way to securing the public health of our country.
As we approach the final days of this pandemic, we must continue to be vigilant against the new strains and rising infection rates. The news of over 9.2 million people having received their first vaccine is extremely encouraging. We simply cannot allow the progress of our world-leading vaccination programme to be hindered. I am sure, however, that Ministers have taken these decisions after much wrangling and it has ultimately been in our national interest. In my view, the Government have taken the right decisions at the right time. Protecting our people and preserving our aviation industry has been paramount, and I will continue to work with the Government as we embark on our path to recovery.
It is right and proper that, at a time when new variants are emerging across the world, we act to shore up our defences and maintain an agile approach that can react to changing circumstances, particularly in the light of the news today on the South African variant, which is affecting part of my constituency.
Suspending all travel corridors two weeks ago was a painful decision to take. We are a truly international nation, a travel hub, but it was the right decision. We are making huge progress through the vaccination programme, and I commend the work of the Minister for vaccine deployment—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi)—particularly today, when the new Avanti Meadows vaccination centre opens in my constituency to add to the fantastic work already under way at Bishop’s Stortford football club.
With herculean efforts and brilliant progress being made each day, we must not on any account become complacent now, but as I said, this decision and others like it come at a cost for the aviation sector in particular. I hold the ambition to safely open the airways as soon as possible. I am particularly keen to support Stansted airport, where a number of my constituents work. To enable that, though, the support that the Government have offered to the aviation sector is crucial: a potential £8 million for every airport, the new global travel taskforce to support the industry, and the many billions of pounds of support through schemes such as the furlough and business interruption loans.
We have a secure strategy in place to mitigate the risk of new variants entering the country, and this has been built from a solid platform that has protected our borders for many months. With the way in which these measures are now described by some Opposition Members, though, I would forgive the public for believing that we have a great big sign on the door saying, “All welcome—no matter what”, but that could not be further from the truth. We are requiring all passengers from abroad to present a negative test before departing for England; we are enforcing mandatory self-isolation periods for arrivals; we have suspended the travel corridors; we are introducing isolation in hotels for British citizens coming from red list countries; and we are increasing police checks, which will be helped by the extra police numbers in my constituency. We will also all continue to act on advice and take all factors into account.
The Opposition’s motion is yet another mix of hindsight and shadow boxing around Government announcements, so I certainly will not be supporting it. I back the Government’s strategy and fully support the agile approach they are taking, which allows us to react quickly in a perpetually changing environment.
It is a pleasure to be called, Madam Deputy Speaker. I believe they call this the headline slot, so thank you very much.
I am old enough to remember the Labour party’s position on free movement, so I am excited to speak in this Opposition day debate on our borders. The motion calls on the Government to
“immediately introduce a comprehensive…quarantine system for all arrivals into the UK”,
which does not seem to fit entirely with the free movement of people that we know and love from Labour policy.
There are two things that I want to major on in the short time I have to address the House tonight: the practicalities and the politics of the motion before us. I will start with the practicalities. Milton Keynes, as the House will know, was host to one of the coronavirus repatriation centres when, almost this time last year—time has flown—repatriations were taking place for British nationals and their dependants from Wuhan over to the UK. Quite frankly, it is a bit of a palaver getting people into converted hotel accommodation safely, given what we knew then and what we know now about the virus. I wonder whether Her Majesty’s official Opposition have clearly thought through how we get arrivals from overseas into hotel accommodation in the UK safely and in a covid-secure manner, because what they are suggesting is quite a logistical exercise.
Moving on from the practicalities, I turn to the politics. I mentioned that I was old enough to remember Labour’s last policy on borders, and I am old enough to remember the last time that an inadvertent policy position threatened the Northern Ireland protocol. Perhaps the Opposition Front Benchers might want to clarify how the common travel area between the UK and Ireland would be affected by their proposals. Would this be another EU diplomatic incident moment? Are they riding roughshod over the Northern Ireland protocol?
Quite frankly, I think we have some of the strictest measures in the world to prevent new strains of coronavirus from entering the UK. We have pre-departure testing, passenger locator forms, quarantine on arrival for at least 10 days, and a complete ban on flights from the highest-risk countries. What are the Opposition offering that is better than that?
I thank all Members who have taken the time to speak in this debate at this critical moment for our nation. We have heard a great number of insightful contributions. I refer particularly to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who was very clear that, from the start, not enough has been done; we have not learned the lessons. Even now when people are told to self-isolate and have a visit from the police, if there is no answer, there is no follow-up. We cannot keep the country safe if we cannot ensure that people are following the rules. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the professionalism of the UK Border Force staff at Heathrow, many of whom are his constituents. This is not about the quality, experience and dedication of our frontline workers; fundamentally, this is about the Government’s failure of policy and failure to take action.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) the repeated feeling that the Government just have not learned the lessons. The most important lesson, surely, is that we have to take swift action at the right time. The opportunity is here. This is not hindsight. We are looking ahead. We are seeing new strains coming across the world and we are saying that our vaccination roll-out could be affected if we do not get a grip. This is looking ahead, trying to help the Government to avoid what could well follow, because none of us wants that—none of us wants to risk the vaccination roll-out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) quite rightly said that this is not a false choice set up in the way the Government want, whereby we have to choose between a health intervention or an economic intervention. They go hand in hand. If we are to have a health intervention, which is the right thing to do because this is a health crisis, then we marry that with an economic intervention, such as financial support for the aviation industry which has been devastated now for a year because of different lockdowns and the Government’s failure to have a coherent forward-looking strategy. It is crying out for more support and the Government have failed to provide it at every opportunity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) rightly asked the question: where on earth is the Home Secretary? This debate was secured by the shadow Home Secretary. Where is the Home Secretary? We looked in the Aye Lobby just in case she was waiting to vote, but she is not there either. I am not sure where she is. Maybe she does not want to be her own hypocrite by having a view completely in line with the motion down for debate and voting on, while having to stand at the Dispatch Box. Perhaps she values her job more than the public interest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) talked about financial support being contingent. The Government talk a lot about the £3 billion support for aviation. That is correct—although, by the way, it is a fraction of the overall value to the UK economy—but it has come with no conditions: no conditions on jobs, no conditions on the supply chain, no conditions on UK taxpayer status, no conditions to rule out the payment of dividends. These are all the very basic measures we need.
Then, of course, there is our green recovery. How can we really build back better and rebuild this country to a vision we can be proud of? My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) rightly said—this was a theme throughout most of the contributions —that the Government are always one step behind. There is a danger now, when we feel as though we are getting closer and closer, and vaccinations are being rolled out, that our amazing NHS staff, local government workers and our armed forces on the ground making a difference could be undermined if we fail to take action at this point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) again pointed out that the Government failed to take action. We have seen tens of thousands of people in aviation losing their jobs. We see more who have been threatened with fire and rehire. These are real-life consequences where people are not just facing a health pandemic and a health crisis, but are worried about how they are going to pay the mortgage. And where were the Government when the people of this country asked for help? They were nowhere to be seen when it came to aviation. It was a drop in the ocean. Aviation has a long way to go before it can rebuild.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) talked about the track and trace system. Is that not the crux of why we are even having this debate in the first place? The track and trace system, which should have been world beating—God knows we paid for it—failed this country. It failed to keep tracing in place, so we cannot rely on it. Every intervention has to make up for a system that is fundamentally broken. We always have to go that bit harder because what we were promised has not been delivered.
We heard from Conservative Back Benchers. If we tot up their years of service, I am quite sure the Father of the House has given more service than the lot of them put together. These are all the new intake desperate for promotion. By the way, I hope they get the promotion they have auditioned for today, but I am afraid it is a failure of leadership that ignores the fact that we are in a very different position today than we were even last summer. Today we have a number of new strains of the virus that could undermine our vaccination roll-out. When we have the end in sight, there is also the threat that it could be undermined. That is the real danger.
We have no idea where the new strain might come from that would undermine all of this. It could come from anywhere in the world. When we talk about nations being on a list, we of course need to bear in mind that some nations have higher infection rates than others, not least the UK. The truth is that it is individuals who carry the virus—not nations. If we do not have a programme in place to manage incoming passengers—individuals who may be carrying the virus—we cannot control it in the way we need to.
What is more telling in a sense is that the Government almost nod to the fact that their 10-day self-isolation system does not work. They compare the 10 days of self-isolation—by the way, they reach only 3% of contacts in that scheme—with hotel quarantine. If someone is told to self-isolate at home for 10 days and they do so, what is the real difference if they are self-isolating in a hotel? The Government know that many people do not adhere to the rules that are there to protect us all.
We see amazing work from our frontline heroes as vaccination continues to roll out. They have shown us what we have always known them to be: our NHS workers, the armed forces and local government are the very best of us, and they prove it day in, day out. We must not put that at risk. We must not allow such a poor system to risk undermining that gallant effort. The public are aghast, and the Government are on the wrong side of the public. How can we have a policy that says that the door to a local school is shut, but the border is open? It defies logic. People want to know that the Government have a coherent plan that will get us through to the other side.
We recognise that every health intervention needs to be accompanied by an economic intervention. We fully recognise that doing the right thing to protect our country will have an impact on aviation and jobs, so what we are saying is, “Marry the two together. Do the right thing for a health intervention, but make sure there is financial support.” The Chancellor promised a sectoral deal a year ago. That is what we are calling for—we are entirely in agreement with him, but he is taking time to deliver on his promise.
We have made it very clear that any financial support must come with clear conditions. It cannot just be a bail-out. The Government need to listen to the debate. The country is calling for leadership to look forward and get us through to the other side. The Government must not put up barriers on this. They should come with us, do the right thing and get ahead of the virus.
Let me begin by thanking all hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate. We must keep this horrendous virus under control so that we can roll out the vaccines as quickly as possible and get back to our normal lives. I do not doubt that the whole House, whatever Members’ views, is united behind and resolute about that common goal.
The Government have always sought to steer a protective but practical course through this crisis based on scientific advice. In the fact of a lethal enemy, we will continue to act in the best interests of the British people. We will continue to protect lives. We will continue to distribute our world-leading vaccine programme, because that is what will defeat the coronavirus. We will do everything to ensure that we can support an economic recovery that is as strong as it is safe.
The delivery of an effective vaccine, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) has noted, is the best way to protect the most vulnerable in our society, to save thousands of lives, and ultimately to support the easing and removal of restrictions so that we can return to an era of safe international travel, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti) have said.
The whole country owes a debt of gratitude to the incredible health workers who are administering the jabs, as the hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), among many others, have said. Vaccines have already been administered to 9.3 million UK residents and key workers—that is more than in the rest of Europe combined. As my hon. Friends the Members for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) and for Newbury (Laura Farris) have noted, that is due to the decisions that this Government have taken.
However, we cannot rest while the vaccines are being rolled out, and we have to take measures to protect our health and safeguard the NHS. That includes taking firm action to address the risk of new variants of the virus entering the UK and spreading through the population, potentially hampering that vaccine effort. There is no single measure that mitigates that risk entirely—it is the layers of actions that we have discussed today, in combination with the vaccine programme, that will turn the tide on the coronavirus.
As the Home Secretary set out last week, in the light of increasing concerns around new variants, mandatory quarantine measures for those arriving from high-risk countries are an essential next step to safeguard public health, and I assure the House that we are working urgently and will share those details shortly. But I stress that this essential step is just one part of a wider co-ordinated strategy to protect the nation. From the start of this pandemic, we have taken a robust approach to prevent imported cases of covid-19. That has included self-isolation requirements and the use of travel corridors to manage entry from high-risk countries. We have kept that approach under regular review, and changes have been made when the scientific evidence demanded it.
I am sorry, I will not, because I am so short of time.
That is why we acted quickly to suspend all travel corridors following the surge in cases this winter; it is why we recently introduced pre-departure testing requirements, whereby passengers require a negative test before being allowed to travel to the UK, to further protect against imported cases; and it is why all international passengers arriving in the UK are required to complete a passenger locator form.
On enforcement, recent statistics show that enforcement action and the hard work of border officials has resulted in almost full compliance from those entering the country. Border Force has made 3 million spot checks, and it now aims to achieve 100% checks to tackle PLF and PDT non-compliance at the border, along with 100% covid compliance checks.
Will the Minister explain what he means by 100% compliance checks? Does he just mean people filled in the form, or does he mean they were actually checked to see whether they were self-isolating at home? If it is the latter, how does he explain the police figures from last week, which found a whole load of people who had been at home where no enforcement was taken?
The right hon. Lady misheard me. I said that Border Force is working towards achieving that 100% check.
However, there is no room for complacency. We have taken additional steps to limit new covid-19 strains entering the country through the use of travel bans. We have banned travel from southern Africa, Brazil, South America, Portugal and the United Arab Emirates. We will be stepping up police enforcement, making sure that only those who absolutely must travel are leaving the country and checking that those who return are complying with the rules.
We can be clear that we already have in place a system of great robustness, as was noted by my hon. Friends the Members for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines), for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) and for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt). That includes pre-departure testing, a passenger locator form with enhanced enforcement, and 10 days’ isolation—all assuming someone is not coming from one of the red list countries from which travel is banned, remembering that travel corridors are currently suspended.
In the time that I have remaining, let me deal with the main topic—why not a full travel ban? We have taken the robust but balanced approach that I referred to earlier. We have carefully considered all available options, including applying blanket restrictions, but they are not appropriate for our current situation. We are an island nation yet a global hub, and we are different from Australia and New Zealand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, among others, noted. It is critical that we allow freight to keep moving, and at present 40% of it arrives in the belly of passenger planes. That is the food on our tables, the PPE in our hospitals, the online goods that people order, the supplies that people working at home use.
No one should be fooled that a blanket approach, as we are having urged upon us today, would work. We have to look at what it would achieve. We have only to look at the United States, which closed its borders entirely in the early stages of this crisis and now has one of the worst pandemic experiences in the world, to see how vain that hope could be. Nor is it clear, as the Chairman of the Transport Committee said and as New Zealand and Australia have seen, how borders, once closed, will ever open up again. I therefore disagree with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) that we should follow that approach.
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put.
That this House calls on the Government to immediately introduce a comprehensive hotel quarantine system for all arrivals into the UK, thereby securing the country against the import of new strains and maximising the effectiveness of the country’s vaccination programme; to publish the scientific evidence which informed the Government’s decision not to introduce a comprehensive hotel quarantine regime to flights from all countries; and to announce a sector support package for aviation focused on employment and environmental improvements.
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