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International Travel: Covid-19

Volume 693: debated on Thursday 29 April 2021

What steps his Department is taking to prepare for the safe reopening of international travel as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (914899)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the safe operation of international travel as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (914923)

What steps his Department is taking to prepare for the safe reopening of international travel as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (914929)

The global travel taskforce report clearly sets out how, when the time is right, we will be able to restart international travel, without putting our hard-won progress against the virus at risk. We will confirm by early May whether non-essential international travel can resume from 17 May.

Comprehensive covid testing will be critical for the safe reopening of wider international travel. We already know that countries with very low rates of covid infection will be placed on a green list. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether there are plans to allow individuals travelling from those countries at least to meet baseline testing requirements using lateral flow devices rather than the costly Polymerase chain reaction tests?

I know my hon. Friend will agree that it is very important to ensure that, whatever we do, we keep the British people safe. It is a question very much for the scientists to let us know whether PCR or lateral flow tests would be the appropriate test for a day, too. However, it is the case that I am very anxious to get the cost of those tests down. I can bring some good news to the House: there are now test providers providing tests for £60 and, indeed, one now for £44.90.

Constituents have come to me raising the issue of queues at airports. There are long waits, no food and drinks, and nowhere to sit, in some cases for five hours. There is totally inadequate social distancing, and arrivals from safe destinations and from red list countries are forced into the same queues all mixed together. Heathrow Airport has been clear that Border Force is the problem. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with his counterpart in the Home Office about fixing this fiasco?

I should remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that people should not be travelling right now. In fact, they cannot travel right now without a very exceptional reason indeed, because people have to stay at home—stay domestically. However, it is the case that Border Force is checking every single person who enters the country to make sure that they have completed the pre-departure test and the locator form to say where they will be. I am afraid that, at the moment, that inevitably creates some queues. As we move towards the unlocking of international travel, we will be addressing this issue not least through beginning to automate the e-gates with the pre-departure form.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Leeds-based Jet2 has recently announced the cancellation of all flights until 23 June, citing continued uncertainty about Government restrictions. With the wider travel industry braced for many European holiday destinations being off limits for some time, will the Secretary of State commit to publishing detailed assessments of the categorisation of specific countries in the traffic light system so that the industry bodies can see whether there is an immediate prospect of improvements? Furthermore, will he take into account the economic value of certain European destinations to the UK travel industry?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we will be having the Joint Biosecurity Centre look at four principal factors: the level of coronavirus in any given country; the number of vaccines that has been dispensed in that country; the concern over any particular variants; and the quality of the data. Those are the facts and figures that it will be looking at. None the less, I do share his concerns about when a country jumps from one category to another, and we saw that last year. We are taking a couple of different steps to try to help with that. One is to have a green watch list where we are able to flag up, perhaps a couple of weeks in advance, to say that we are looking at a variation of interest, which could turn into a variation of concern, in order to help provide a bit more forward guidance this year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) is bang on the money today. Border Force is operating an onerous, manual, assurance check on inbound passengers’ covid compliance despite there being very low incidence of non-compliance and robust pre-departure checks by carriers, causing huge queues in our immigration halls. The Secretary of State likes his taskforces. Where is the one to alleviate these bottlenecks before our skies reopen on 17 May?

I am somewhat confused. The hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the shadow Transport Secretary—the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon)—wants 100% mandatory quarantine for those coming from all countries everywhere in the world, which surely could only lead to even more problems and delays at airports. So which is it to be: 100% quarantine and therefore much longer queues, or a practical and rational approach that has red list countries but also recognises that there are people who can quarantine at home? As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), we are working with Border Force on electronic gates, but it is not quite as straight- forward as the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) makes out, not least because it requires both hardware and software in order to make those e-gates.

I very much hope that in 18 days’ time people in this country will be able to enjoy international travel once again. Could I just press the Secretary of State with regard to the need for a PCR test for those coming in from green list countries? Currently, those coming in from amber countries take the lateral flow test, yet those who come back from green countries will have to have a more expensive PCR test. I recognise the need to detect mutant strains, so may I suggest that we require green country travellers to take a lateral flow test and, if they are positive, then take a PCR test so that we could detect the strain? That may be a good balance to strike.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his Select Committee for the excellent work that they do on this subject and many others. Of course, like him, I look to the scientists to provide the evidence as to what should be the appropriate level of testing at any stage. Just to reassure him, while we will most likely need to start off with PCR tests, I have incorporated three separate checkpoints during this process, the first of which is on 28 June, when we will look at the rules guiding this in order to make them as low as they can possibly be while at the same time making sure that we maintain the hard-won gains of the British people in this lockdown.