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Covid-19: International Travel

Volume 707: debated on Monday 24 January 2022

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on international travel.

It is less than two months since the first cases of omicron—the most infectious variant to emerge since the start of the pandemic—were confirmed in the UK. Thanks once again to the nationwide army of medical staff and volunteers and the huge public response to our booster programme, today, with more than 137 million jabs administered, including nearly 37 million boosters, Britain is one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, and omicron is in retreat. Thanks also to the decisions taken by the Prime Minister, we have managed to turn the tide on the virus in remarkable time, while keeping our domestic society one of the most open in the world. Today, I can confirm to the House that our international travel regime will also now be liberalised, as part of our efforts to ensure that 2022 is the year in which restrictions on travel, lockdowns and limits on people’s lives are firmly placed firmly in the past.

From 4am on 11 February, and in time for the half-term break, eligible, fully vaccinated passengers arriving in the UK will no longer have to take a post-arrival lateral flow test. That means that, after months of pre-departure testing, post-arrival testing, self-isolation and additional expense, all that fully vaccinated people will now have to do when they travel to the UK is to verify their status via a passenger locator form.

We promised that we would not keep these measures in place a day longer than was necessary. It is obvious to me now that border testing for vaccinated travellers has outlived its usefulness, and we are therefore scrapping all travel tests for vaccinated people, not only making travel much easier, but saving around £100 per family on visits abroad, providing certainty to passengers, carriers and our vital tourism sectors for the spring and summer seasons.

Let me explain to the House how this will work in practice. For now, we will maintain our current definition of “fully vaccinated” for the purpose of inbound travel to the UK. That means two doses of an approved vaccine, or one dose of a Janssen vaccine. We will go further. The measures for those arriving in the UK who do not qualify as fully vaccinated have not changed since last March, so the time has come to review that position, too. Today, I can announce that passengers who do not qualify as fully vaccinated will no longer be required to do a day 8 test after arrival or to self-isolate. They will still need to fill out a passenger locator form to demonstrate proof of a negative covid test taken two days before they travel, and they must still take a post-arrival PCR test. This is a proportionate system that moves us a step closer to normality while maintaining vital public health protections.

For kids travelling to the UK, under-18s will continue to be treated as eligible fully vaccinated passengers, which means that they will not face any tests at the UK border. Today I am pleased to confirm that from 3 February, 12 to 15-year-olds in England will be able to prove their vaccination status via the digital NHS pass for international outbound travel. Again, this should help families to plan holidays for February half-term.

Reconnecting with key markets not only boosts the UK economy but will help the hard-hit aviation sector to take back to the skies, so I can also confirm that from 4 am on 11 February we will recognise, at the UK border, vaccine certificates from 16 further nations, including countries such as China and Mexico, bringing the vaccine recognition total to more than 180 countries and territories worldwide.

One consequence of covid and of rapidly changing infection patterns across the world has been a border regime that, while necessary, has at times been complex, confusing and very difficult to navigate. That has been a challenge for many people who have been travelling over the past two years, so we will also simplify the passenger locator form, making it quicker and easier to complete, and from the end of February we will also make it more convenient by giving people an extra day to fill it out before they travel. Although the option for a red list of countries will remain in place to provide a first line of defence against future covid variants of concern arriving from other countries, we are looking to replace the managed quarantine system with other contingency measures, including home isolation, provided that we can develop new ways to ensure high levels of compliance. In the meantime, our contingency measures remain available. As the House knows, there are currently no countries on the red list. However, I must make it clear that those contingency measures will be applied only if we are particularly concerned about a variant of concern that poses a substantial risk—one that is even greater than omicron.

The UK Health Security Agency will continue to monitor threats and will maintain a highly effective surveillance capacity, monitoring covid infections overseas. But I can announce that, over time, we intend to move away from blanket border measures to a more sophisticated and targeted global surveillance system. I also commit us to developing a full toolbox of contingency options to provide more certainty on how we will respond against future variants. The Government will set out our strategy, including how we will deal with any future new strains of the virus, next month. We will continue to work with international partners, including the World Health Organisation, to help all countries to achieve a level of genomic sequencing to monitor variants that is much closer to our own world-leading capacity.

We are moving into a new phase of the fight against covid. Instead of protecting the UK from a pandemic, our future depends on our living with endemic covid, just as we live with flu, for example. We will set out our strategy for that transition in the spring. But as we navigate our recovery, and as we return to more normal travel next month, our advice to all eligible adults who have not been vaccinated stays the same: please get jabbed as soon as possible, and if you have had two jabs, please get boosted. I have recently been speaking to many of my opposite numbers around the world, and they have made it clear to me that regardless of what we do, they are very likely, by this summer, to require that people have had the booster jab. So my advice to anyone who wishes to travel this year, including during the summer, is: do not leave it too late to get your booster as you are very likely to be required to have had it by the third country that you are flying to.

We already have one of the most open economies and societies in Europe, with the result that our GDP has outpaced that of other G7 countries. With the changes announced today, we have one of the most open travel sectors in the world. Of course we know that covid can spring surprises, but everybody should now feel confident about booking holidays, business trips, and visits to families and friends abroad. Be in no doubt: it is only because the Government got the big calls right—on vaccination, on boosters and on dealing with omicron—that we can now open up travel and declare that Britain is open for business. Today we are setting Britain free. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. The aviation industry is a critical part of the economy, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the UK, but the Government’s haphazard approach and their refusal to grant it sector-specific support have caused it real damage. The UK’s aviation sector has experienced a slower recovery than any of our European counterparts and had more than 60,000 job losses by summer last year. It is baffling that the Government did not do more to support it as a strategic sector and potentially attach conditions for transition to net zero, as countries such as France and Germany did.

Too often, the Government’s indecisive and chaotic approach to each wave of covid infections has failed to keep the country safe while causing uncertainty for the travelling public and for business. Each time a new variant has emerged, the Government have taken a different approach to border controls and restrictions. We all want to see safe international travel and the protection of public health, and that is precisely why the public finally deserve to hear in full how Ministers intend to develop a comprehensive, easily understandable plan to ensure that that can happen in the months ahead. We must avoid the sheer absurdity of the Secretary of State announcing one set of restrictions before promptly scrapping it and announcing a completely different regime. Businesses and the public should have clarity about what changes the Government will likely make in the event of a new variant and not have to wait until 5 pm on a Saturday night for new measures required on a Monday morning. That is why it is welcome that the Government will finally produce a plan to allow the travel industry and the public the certainty that they need. Labour recently outlined its plan on the action needed to learn to live well with covid and protect lives and livelihoods and help avoid harsh restrictions in future waves. That is critical when it comes to the travel industry.

As the Secretary of State said, it is inevitable that another variant of concern will emerge. With omicron, the Government’s plan was upended, proving that it was simply not fit for purpose. They must learn lessons and outline a framework to guide future decision making and detect future variants. Therefore, when the Secretary of State publishes his plan, will he include the data that will guide the approach to future variants and detail the economic, wellbeing and equality impact of each scenario? Given that only last week the Health Secretary said that testing will remain part of our walls of surveillance, does he agree that we should build up the UK’s sovereign capability to ensure that we always have a supply of tests when we need them? Has he considered the merits of a surveillance system to detect possible future variants?

Last month, the Secretary of State confirmed to me that he would raise my concerns and those of the Competition and Markets Authority about the PCR market with the Health Secretary. Will he update the House on what progress he has made in cleaning up that market for future travellers? I would also be grateful for his confirmation of whether the passenger locator form will be available in other languages in the future.

The announcement is also a visible reminder of another stark truth: in an era of global international travel, no one is safe until everyone is safe. In the UK, we have learnt that lesson the hard way. If we are to break the endless cycle of new variants, we must vaccinate the world, yet Ministers simply have not met the commitments made last summer at the G7 to get the vaccine rolled out to other parts of the globe; instead they cut the overseas aid budget. Will the Secretary of State outline what steps the Government are taking to deliver on those measures committed to at the G7?

Living with covid cannot be just an empty slogan with no plan. That is why we need to properly prepare and protect our lives and livelihoods in the future. It is time that Ministers finally gave passengers, industry and communities the security and stability that they deserve.

I thank the hon. Lady very much for—I think—welcoming the statement. I understand that she has not been in post for very long, but she will be aware of how her predecessors simultaneously called for us to tighten up and close the borders while relaxing and opening them, often on the same day or a few days apart. I understand that she has recently come to the post, but, if she does not mind my suggestion, there is one thing that she can do current day. She may be able to speak to her Welsh Labour governmental counterparts, who are a constant drag on opening up aviation. I hear that she is very keen that we move ahead with today’s plan; I hope she will be able to assist by persuading them to move a little more promptly.

The hon. Member quite rightly says that we need a toolbox to respond, as I mentioned in the statement. She is absolutely right about that; we do need a toolbox going forward, which is a question not just for the UK. This morning I was talking to the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, who co-chairs a World Health Organisation body working exactly on the global response. One of the most important things to stress in my statement, which might have been missed, is that we believe the time is right to move from individuals being checked as they come over our border—as we know, whatever the variant, eventually it gets in, as every country has found—to a global system of surveillance that is every bit as good as what we have here. “World leading” is applied often in the UK, but we genuinely have a world-leading version of surveillance, through the amount of coronavirus testing we can do with genome sequencing, and we are helping other countries through practical applications to catch up.

The hon. Member also asked what the Government are doing to honour the bid we made at the G7 and elsewhere on coronavirus. I gently point out that the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed by Oxford, has been used in more arms than any other vaccine in the world—I think I am right in saying that about 2.5 billion people have been vaccinated with it. That is a huge contribution, in addition to COVAX and all the other donations that we have made and will continue to make.

I am pleased to hear, I think, that the whole House welcomes the plan to unlock and to set Britain free.

Not only is today’s announcement another example of our living with covid; this is also a landmark day for international travel, a sector that has been absolutely decimated over the last couple of years. Today’s news is surely the evidence it needs to show that people should now feel confident to book with certainty. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State ensure a culture across Whitehall so that if there are bumps in the road, international travel will not be the sector that has to be made an example of, and so that we continue to support international travel and all the fantastic people who work in it?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we have learned more about the pandemic, as it becomes endemic, it is quite right that our response should be different—a moment ago I mentioned shifting from individual testing at the border to a global system of testing—so I do give him that commitment. We are now looking to work with a new toolbox that will help to set out a framework. We will of course always act quickly if we have to, but I believe that the days of having to go back to big lockdowns at the borders are past.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Once again, though, we have an announcement on coronavirus restrictions being made to the press before Parliament. While the Government, and particularly this Secretary of State, are desperately trying to save the Prime Minister’s skin with announcements such as this or the removal of plan B restrictions generally, Parliament is repeatedly cut out of the loop, as the Government throw out policies to placate their base.

However, we have reached the omicron peak a little earlier than projected. Indeed, today in Scotland nightclubs can reopen, while the caps on indoor events, table service requirements for venues selling alcohol and social distancing have also been removed. However, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, the revised requirements that he has announced will apply to England only. What discussions has he had with colleagues in the devolved Administrations about the measures in his statement, and how did they factor into his decision? The devolved Administrations were consulted very late on previous changes to travel regulations and not given adequate time to look over the data and announce a decision simultaneously.

The Secretary of State proposes to remove the requirement to test on arrival, but he will surely accept that regular lateral flow testing is still imperative in identifying and tracing cases more generally, and allowing everyone to travel safely. What representations has he made to his colleagues to ensure that LFTs remain free on request for everyone, regardless of income? Can he also tell us a bit more—it has been asked about and I do not think he answered—about what mechanism will be put in place to monitor possible new variants, now that testing is no longer in place?

Finally, the aviation industry is still in the same position on the sector-specific support promised by the Government nearly two years ago. The impact of covid on travelling patterns and customer behaviour will not end with today’s statement, so what plan does the Transport Secretary have to fulfil the promises made to the sector at the start of the pandemic for real, targeted Government support? The job retention scheme was not enough for the 3,000 people in my constituency who lost their jobs, or for those who faced fire and rehire by companies such as Menzies Aviation and British Airways.

I just want the hon. Gentleman to know that, through the UK Health Security Agency, the four chief medical officers were involved in studying the data and reaching this conclusion. I also spoke this morning to a member of the Scottish National party Government, Michael Matheson, about these measures, so there has been that communication.

The hon. Gentleman asked, as he often does, about the support. It has now reached £8 billion for the aviation sector. We have had not just the job retention programme but loans, in addition to assistance to those on the ground. I ask him to look a little closer to home, because both Edinburgh and Glasgow airports have criticised the SNP Government for refusing even to meet them. They have said that that is in stark contrast to the proactive approach of the UK Government, and the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association has said that the industry has been “sacrificed” by the SNP, so I do not think we want to be taking too many lectures about support. Support comes from getting airlines back in the sky.

There has been nothing particularly unusual about the constantly changing rules in England—that has been replicated all around the world—but one thing that has been consistent throughout is the World Health Organisation’s advice that travel restrictions and border closures are not necessary because they do not prevent the spread of this virus or variants, so I welcome today’s statement. Of course, many of our popular holiday destinations in North America and in Europe will continue to require testing of people from third countries, so what discussions is the Transport Secretary having with other countries to encourage them to take the sensible approach that we are taking here in England?

I am in constant contact with my equivalent numbers around the world. We are having frequent conversations, in particular with G7 countries—we are, of course, chairing the presidency of the G7—with which I speak regularly. The biggest thing that could happen elsewhere is for them to reach our level of booster protection in particular. Our 37 million booster jabs have provided us with a wall of protection. Once that is available elsewhere, that will help to get international travel moving even faster.

I warmly welcome today’s announcement. As the Secretary of State knows, the Transport Committee has been unanimous in calling for this for some time. Could he explain, though, why he is keeping the passenger locator form? It is a massive irritant to people. It is much longer than the EU form and is very complicated. I hope he is not keeping it because he is relaxing the rules for the unvaccinated. That would be very unfair on the vaccinated. Will he reassure this House that, given what the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has said—namely, that compared with domestic health measures, these onerous testing requirements and draconian travel restrictions have been shown to have absolutely zero impact on the spread of covid and omicron over the past two years in this country—the Government will never resort to this policy again?

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I also heard him making approving noises while I made my statement. He will want to speak to his Front-Bench colleagues, who, unlike Government Members, have consistently wanted us to go further and faster on closing the borders. We have tried to balance it against the critical nature of our island status as a nation.

The right hon. Gentleman asks a very good question about the passenger locator form and why we are keeping it. Members may not be aware that it is our only way of distinguishing between those who are vaccinated and those who are unvaccinated when they use e-gates to come into this country. A lot of work has been done to automate the e-gate so that it reads the passport number, refers back to the passenger locator form and knows whether that individual has had to take a pre-departure test—which people who have not been vaccinated have to take—and, indeed, whether they have to take a day 2 test. It is there for a critical reason. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the complexity of the passenger locator form, and I committed in my statement to going back through it and simplifying it, which is much easier to do now that we have the status of fully vaccinated people not requiring any tests at all.

My sincere thanks to the Government for these measures to reduce significantly the testing requirements for international travel during covid-19. As the Secretary of State has correctly mentioned, other jurisdictions around the world will require British travellers entering those countries and territories to do testing. Will he continue to monitor those testing companies in this country that, frankly, have been ripping off many customers and providing appalling service? One example affecting a number of my constituents is Chronomics. People have paid a lot of money to it and have waited in many cases more than a week to get test results back.

I absolutely commit to doing that. The system of testing is run by our colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care, and I share the frustration that the public have, as I know do colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care, that on occasions these companies have in some cases not behaved appropriately. The vast majority of the time, it should be said, they have provided excellent private sector provision, without which we would not have had capacity within the NHS, but I share my hon. Friend’s concern, and I know that colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Care are on the case.

It is right that the Secretary of State said in his statement that the border at times, while necessary, has been

“complex, confusing and very difficult to navigate”.

That is fair. I highlight that, on a visit to Heathrow airport with the Home Affairs Committee last year, we heard about the frustration and the lack of engagement with the industry and trade unions by the Government on the regimes they were bringing in. Will the Secretary of State comment on the long-term plans to fully engage with unions and the industry to keep the border safe?

The right hon. Lady is clearly right to say that it was complex, confusing and difficult, as I mentioned in my statement. That was by necessity in many cases: we had to act over a weekend, and we had to change the law in a matter of four hours with the mink variant, I recall. That has necessitated a lot of discussions. I want to let her know that I have been in constant contact with, for example, Heathrow and the airlines. The aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), is doing that day in, day out, and we commit to redouble our efforts with them. Today is a watershed moment. Those are not my words, but those of Airlines UK, which has said that this is a real opportunity for the industry to get back on its feet and back into the air.

When it comes to international travel, Her Majesty’s Government can obviously control only so much. I warmly welcome the excellent Secretary of State’s announcement today, which puts inbound international travel in the best place it has been for two years. I am especially grateful—as he knows, I raised this issue in the House last week with the Prime Minister—as are many of my constituents with half term and Easter plans, that 12 to 15-year-olds will be able to prove their vaccination status via the digital NHS pass from 3 February, as the Secretary of State said in his statement. Can I ask him how practically that will happen, given that under-16s are currently barred from accessing the NHS app at all? What about young people who have had one jab and a recent infection? How will they be able to prove that status? Some practical examples, please.

On the NHS pass, my hon. Friend is right that 12 to 15-year-olds have not been able to access it up to now. They will be able to access that in time for half term. So they will be able to show their status or, indeed print it out in advance. Up to now, they have had to call 119 and order it. That system will change, which I know he will be pleased about.

The situation of people who have had a jab and then caught coronavirus and are then potentially in a position of natural immunity will continue in the short term to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, but we recognise that is an issue. I have spoken to the chief medical officer and the chief exec of the UK Health Security Agency as recently as today on that issue, and the ideal will be in a February review to move more towards a system of being able to accept natural immunisation. There is more work to be done on a technical level before that can happen.

The Secretary of State is totally right that covid can spring surprises—in new variants, more often than not. There is one way we can ensure fewer new variants, and that is to vaccinate the world, but we are a long way away from that. In low-income countries, just 10% of people have had two doses. What discussions has he had with Cabinet colleagues to ensure we live up to the 100 million doses that we have pledged to COVAX? Only 30 million have actually been deployed, and we have only six months left.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we are not safe until everyone has been vaccinated and boosted, as well. I do not think any country in the world can claim a better record on this, not least because, as I mentioned, we have invented the Oxford jab, in part thanks to money that the taxpayer and this Government put in. That has gone on to vaccinate 2.5 billion people, many of them in developing nations, with the huge advantage of not having to cold-freeze the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at minus 70°. We are also committed to providing those vaccinations to the COVAX programme. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady on progress towards that target, so that she can have more detail.

My right hon. Friend’s statement is welcome and is likely to encourage more families to book trips abroad and the like. What assurance can he give me, following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) about the resilience to be guaranteed by the Department of Health and Social Care and others, that, as families take up the opportunities to make bookings, families with children—I declare an interest—under 12 will not see their youngsters left behind at the gate because they have not been able to prove what it is that they need to prove?

Some pretty good reassurances is the answer. It is obviously the case that something worse than omicron could come along. We very much hope—and the chief medical officer and others suggest—that, over a period of time, although not necessarily in a linear fashion, this should become more and more endemic. As for what we accept when people come here, under-18s are exempt. As for flying out, we are making it easier, with 12 to 15 year-olds being added. The message to my hon. Friend, to his constituents and to the whole House is that I hope to expect no surprises between now and the February half term, and enjoy your holidays.

I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State, but he will know that other countries still have testing requirements for travellers from the UK. I know that that question has already been raised. He will know that, if testing is to be valid for international travel, tests must be conducted by private testing firms, which are often based in the UK. One of my constituents has written to me and said that she paid £150 for a single test. In response to a previous question, the Secretary of State said some empty words, which I have heard several times. Is there a concrete plan of action from the Government to crack down on this overcharging?

It is, as the hon. Lady knows, a competitive testing market, in which many different organisations offer to test people. The market, of course, ensures that prices are being driven down. In fact, we have an exact test on this, because for a while in Wales, under the Welsh Government, only NHS tests were allowed to be used, which meant that Welsh people had to pay more for their tests, rather than doing it privately. I do not think that she means to attack the private system, but she is right that it is wrong for people to be ripped off. The Competition and Markets Authority is looking into it and, as I have said, my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care who look after this side of things are also working to make sure that the system is not being abused. Removing the necessity to have tests removes a large part of the need for that marketplace as well.

Throughout the pandemic, Labour has flip-flopped, calling for a pause on international travel, then opposing all and any restrictions. May I thank my right hon. Friend for ignoring its game playing—[Interruption]—and for his unalloyed support for international travel and a truly connected global Britain?

Opposition Members do not like the question because it is true. Everyone has witnessed it. Their Front-Bench team has flip-flopped on one side, then the other side; one way, then the other. As it turns out, it is important to follow the evidence, and when the evidence says that we should unlock and do away with these tests that is exactly what we have done. [Interruption.] One would think that the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), who is shouting from a sedentary position, would welcome the data-driven, spreadsheet-based approach to this issue.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. My former colleagues in the travel industry will certainly welcome it. But how did we get here? Billions of people are protected by the vaccine developed in Oxford; we have had a successful vaccine programme here; and so many people have now been boosted. We are now the freest state with travel restrictions and we are coming out of lockdown nationally. Does that not show that we have great leadership from our Prime Minister and our Government? But why can we not bring it forward a bit from 11 February?

My hon. Friend got a question in there at the end. He is absolutely right about everything he said before the question. I would add that we lead the league table not only in being unlocked as a nation, but in growing as an economy because of the difficult decisions we made at the right times to make sure that 37 million people got the booster in their arm and we are able to keep ourselves unlocked, and that of course includes setting Britain free so that people can travel. In answer to his question about timing, it takes a little bit of time to put these technical changes in place and, indeed, to bring all four nations with us in the process. The good news is that it will be ready for the half-term break.

As someone who represents a very international constituency, where people regularly fly not just for holidays but for business and family reasons, I warmly welcome these changes. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that this shows that we as a Government have made the right decisions when it comes to this virus, and that our country is fully open and ready for business?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is never going to be easy tackling a global pandemic—there is no rulebook or textbook that tells us what to do—and some things we will have got right, while other things we have had to learn along the way. Two years in, I think today is a momentous moment, as Airlines UK has said, because it is important that we are able to unlock the borders and that people are able to travel again to do business and, most importantly, to see family who many people will not have seen for a very long time because of the prohibitive costs, so I am sure the whole House will welcome today’s statement.