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International Travel

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2022

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about international travel.

It is almost two years to the day since the country first went into lockdown—two years in which we have fought an exceptionally difficult and unpredictable pandemic, two years of unprecedented restrictions on mobility and two years that have had a drastic impact on travel and on the industry. However, we have now reached an important milestone in our journey back to pre-pandemic normality. After getting rid of testing requirements for eligible vaccinated passengers a few weeks ago, I am pleased to confirm that we are once again leading the way by removing all the remaining covid measures affecting international travel into the UK.

That means we are the first major economy to get back to the kind of restriction-free travel we all enjoyed before covid. Whether for reuniting with friends and family, holidays or business trips, from 4 am on Friday 18 March—this Friday—there will be no testing or quarantine requirements for any passengers arriving into the UK, regardless of their vaccination status, and we will go further. I have heard the calls from passengers, airlines and Members across the House that the passenger locator form is a burden that has simply outlived its usefulness, so I am delighted to confirm that, from Friday, we will be removing the passenger locator form for all passengers. No more quarantine, no more tests and no more forms—international travel is back.

It will be the first time in two years that we can enable frictionless journeys for passengers travelling to the UK, and the remaining international travel legislation will therefore be revoked this Friday—18 March—two months earlier than the original expiry date of 16 May. The devolved Administrations have confirmed that they will align on the removal of these measures, so this change will be UK-wide. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) chuntering away from a sedentary position. I will come to the Opposition policy, which was both to have further restrictions and then to lift restrictions—often simultaneously—depending on which Member on the Front Bench we listened to.

Today’s announcement is another vital step in our strategy set out by the Prime Minister last month for Britain to live with covid-19 and to manage an endemic virus. Thanks to the success of our vaccine and booster programmes in building population-wide immunity—further boosters are on the way for the most vulnerable this spring—we are in the strongest possible position to lift covid travel regulations without compromising public health.

We must of course remain vigilant against possible future variants, but thanks to the robust protective shield we have built, we can avoid simply reverting to the same restrictions we have used in the past. Even if another variant of concern emerges, next time we will react differently. We have learned a lot during this pandemic, and we will use that experience to respond in more measured ways and more flexible ways. For example, while quarantine hotels were appropriate for red-list arrivals at an earlier stage of the pandemic, we are now standing down the remaining capacity. Our default approach in future will be to take the least stringent possible measures, avoiding border restrictions to minimise impacts on travel. So we will maintain a range of contingency measures in reserve, tailoring our response to the situation. Our first recourse will be to public health guidance, and guidance to ports, airports and operators on how passengers and staff can stay safe and protect others, and we will avoid stricter restrictions wherever we possibly can.

Although we are dropping all testing and quarantine requirements, our advice to eligible adults who have not been vaccinated stays the same: “If you’ve not got jabbed, then please get your vaccinations. If you’ve had two jabs, please get a booster. It will boost and protect your health, it will protect vulnerable people around you and it will smooth travel to other countries.” It is important to say that vaccination status may continue to be required in other countries to make journeys seamless. Passengers should continue to check travel advice on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office website, before they book and travel, to see what restrictions may still be in place in the countries people are visiting.

As we better deal with covid-19 at home, we will continue to make our leading contribution to tackling the disease abroad. We are sending 100 million further doses of vaccines to other countries by this summer. More than 2.6 billion doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have now been supplied to countries around the world on a non-profit basis, almost two thirds of which have gone to low and lower middle-income nations. We are working with key international partners to establish common rules and common contingency measures, reflecting what we have learned from this pandemic, to use in the future.

While all of these measures have been necessary, I do not underestimate for one second just how hard travel restrictions have been. They have been difficult for passengers, and damaging for travel and tourism in particular. Now that we have lifted the final covid measures on inbound flights, the industry will play a vital role in helping build back better from the pandemic. Soon we will publish our strategic framework for aviation, supporting the sector and the jobs that rely on it, and as part of that we will be considering the workforce, skills, connectivity and of course the crucial mission to deliver our net-zero commitments. I will set out more details about the strategic framework in due course.

We promised that we would keep draconian and costly covid measures in place for not a day longer than was absolutely necessary. Now we stand as one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, and we are also the first major economy to travel freely once again without restrictions. The UK has achieved many hard-won gains over the past two years thanks to the endurance and resolve of the public. Now we are seeing the long-awaited rewards for that patience and determination. The removal of all remaining travel measures this Friday will mean passengers can book trips with confidence, businesses can plan with greater certainty and Britain can continue to bounce back from the pandemic, as we learn to live with covid. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. The aviation industry is a critical part of the UK economy, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs, and we all want to see a safe return to international travel, which is why, earlier this year, Labour outlined our comprehensive plan to live well with covid and to protect lives and livelihoods.

We know that the virus will continue to change and adapt and we will need to live with it as it does, and that is critical when it comes to the travel industry. Another variant of concern may emerge, as the Secretary of State has acknowledged, and lessons must be learned from previous Government responses that damaged the industry. He partially outlined some contingency measures, but he had previously committed to publishing a full contingency strategy to deal with possible future variants. With surging cases in international hubs such as Hong Kong and Shanghai, does he agree that he should be fully transparent about his plans, and that that would boost confidence for the travelling public and the airline industry? Can we get a commitment to the publication of that strategy today?

Today’s announcement, which ends restrictions for the unvaccinated, is a reminder of another stark truth: in an era of global international travel, no one is safe until everyone is safe. We in the UK have learned that lesson the hard way. The Secretary of State has confirmed that we will be sending 100 million doses to low-income countries by the summer. Will he explain how 77 million doses will be delivered in just three months, when 23 million have been delivered over the past nine? If we are to break the cycle of new variants, there is only one way to do it: to vaccinate the world.

The elephant in the room today for the Transport Secretary is the cost of living crisis about to engulf this country. The barrier to passengers booking holidays with confidence this spring and summer is not a passenger locator form; it is the historic collapse in living standards facing millions, and the Conservatives’ refusal to do anything about it. The barrier will be the record rise in energy bills in two weeks’ time, the brutal national insurance hike that his Government are imposing on working people, and the record prices of petrol that are swallowing up the incomes of millions of British people as we speak.

This country is facing the largest decline in living standards since the 1950s, putting a holiday beyond the reach of many, and the Transport Secretary has literally nothing to say. Indeed, the only step he has taken is to hike up rail fares by the largest amount in a decade. Today’s announcement eases the remaining travel restrictions, but let us be clear: the barriers to holidays this summer are the tax rises his Government are imposing on hard-working families, the surging petrol prices, and the cost of living crisis made in Downing Street. Either he is oblivious to this crisis, or he is completely indifferent. Either way, is it not time this Government woke up?

I thought we were here to talk about releasing the final covid measures, but I am always up for the challenge and I am happy to respond to the hon. Lady. She started by talking about the importance of and costs to the aviation industry, and I have an ask for her in return. Yesterday, it became apparent that the Labour Government in Wales were less than chuffed with the idea of removing those final measures. Indeed, they want to continue to pile on the costs, bureaucracy and red tape of passenger locator forms, even though they are past their point of relevance. That is what the Labour Government want to do in Wales, and therefore we should not take lectures on how to improve things for the industry. I would have thought that being the first major economy in the world to make travel covid-free in terms of removing those forms would have been warmly welcomed, and I think the Welsh Government could do the same.

The hon. Lady referred to the importance of vaccination and I entirely agree. Moments ago we were talking behind the Speaker’s Chair about the terrible figures in Hong Kong to which she referred, and noting the fact that the deaths that are occurring from the spike in cases in Hong Kong appear to be entirely down to the lack of booster vaccinations. I know she will join me in being grateful that we in this country have managed to get those booster vaccinations to the population most at risk, particularly older people.

The hon. Lady asked about the toolkit of responses if covid comes back, and we had an extensive conversation about that with the UK Health Security Agency in our covid operations meeting yesterday. The collective decision, across all four nations, was that since we do not know the exact form that covid will take in future, rather than listing every possible measure—which, by the way, is every possible measure that has been taken in the past—it would be better and more responsible to see what we are facing in the specific when we see a variant of concern. Members across the House will already know the range of events and possibilities available, noting that vaccinations and pharmaceutical measures make those very different. [Interruption.] I do not agree with the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East that listing a range of increasingly draconian measures will somehow reassure the industry. I think it would be quite the opposite, and that was agreed across all four nations.

Finally, the hon. Lady went on to discuss the cost of living—a very valid subject to be discussing, although I am not sure it quite fits this debate. But briefly, I thought that the Leader of the Opposition had stood at that Dispatch Box a couple of weeks ago and acknowledged and warned the House that the cost of living would rise because of the war in Ukraine—I quote the right hon. and learned Gentleman when I say that. The hon. Lady asked specifically what we have done about the cost of petrol in tanks, but for 10 years, 11 years, we have frozen fuel duty, and for every one of those years Labour opposed that—every single year without fail. That measure saved £15 per gallon for the average family car, but what have Labour Members done? They have voted against it every time. They now have the chutzpah to come to the Dispatch Box and ask what we are doing about it. It is simply extraordinary. The hon. Lady then referred to rail fares, which have risen at nearly half the level of inflation. That represents a real-terms cut in rail fares because, as she knows, inflation is higher.

The hon. Lady mentioned and referenced employment and unemployment, and I have three facts for her. First, we have record levels of employment in this country, which are higher than before covid. Secondly, unemployment has been falling every month for the past year. Thirdly, no Labour Government in history have left power with unemployment lower than when they came to office.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was beginning to wonder which statement I had walked in on. Let us return to the theme of international travel, not least because thousands of people have worked in that industry over the past two years and have suffered greatly. It would be respectful of this place to focus on them, rather than on some of the wider issues that have just been brought up.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. Over the past two years I know that he has battled hard to support this sector. These are the last barriers to be removed, and I hope the industry will now be ready for lift off. Border Force resources will be required once capacity increases in the summer. Will he do everything in his power, working with the Home Secretary, to ensure that we have everybody we need at the airports? I used the airport at the weekend. Border Force was fantastic and really efficient, but as numbers upscale, so must it upscale.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Ensuring that Border Force and its resources are in the right place will be important, especially when our airports get busier again. I will certainly undertake to speak to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about those provisions. It might interest the House to know that with e-gates, not having to check a separate database for the passenger locator form—that was automatically carried out by e-gates, using both software and hardware—saves up to six seconds per passenger coming through. That should also help to relieve some of the queueing.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. It has become increasingly clear that the much vaunted four-nations approach often stems from situations where the devolved Governments are left with little choice, given the nature of the devolution funding settlement. Whether for furlough, community testing, or the various travel arrangements, when the devolved Governments perhaps took a different view, at least with the timing of such decisions, no public money would be made available for a different public health approach. It is not quite a “do as I say” approach; it is more a “do as we will fund” approach. Borrowed funds are obviously not available to the devolved Administrations, and as the Secretary of State alluded, the Welsh Government have said they are extremely disappointed at the dropping of testing requirements. The Scottish Government have said that they followed the UK Government to avoid the harm to tourism caused by non-alignment. Is this another example of the UK Government making a decision, and strong-arming the devolved Administrations into following them to avoid economic disadvantage?

Despite the unease that some members of society will have following these announcements, particularly given the rather nebulous commitment to continued surveillance, this is welcome news for the aviation and travel sectors, which come out of the pandemic in much poorer, smaller and less competitive shape than they entered it. That is largely a result of the extremely poor support given to the sector, in which the UK stood out among top aviation markets for its paucity of support.

The future is far from certain with events in Ukraine and covid potentially causing disruption as well as the cost of living, as has been alluded to. So I would like the Government to commit to being a bit more fleet of foot on aviation support should the need arise. Indeed, when will the strategic aviation review be published?

The UK Government have said that the UK Health Security Agency will continue to monitor variants of concern, so, further to the concerns outlined by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), will the Secretary of State explain what measures will be part of that continued monitoring, how long it will operate for and how it will be funded? Lastly, what consideration at all did the Secretary of State give to the position of devolved Governments in reaching the decision that he has announced?

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman and the House that the UK Health Security Agency is a four-nations body made up of the chief medical officers from all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland. Therefore, when we came to yesterday’s discussion at Covid-O, which included Scottish Ministers, we could take into account the advice provided. I do not want to accuse him of being happy to see the forms and bureaucracy scrapped while still somehow opposing it, but it seems to me that if one is really serious about cutting bureaucracy, one should welcome this step.

The hon. Gentleman refers to support that he claims the Scottish Government have given to aviation, but it is worth reminding the House that that is not what Edinburgh and Glasgow airports have said. They were upset that Ministers in Scotland refused to meet them, which they said was “galling” and in “stark contrast” to the UK Government’s approach. Indeed, the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association said that its industry had been “sacrificed” by the SNP—its word rather than mine. It is important to say that we are supporting the sector, not least by removing these restrictions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the strategic aviation review. I hope he will accept that there is no point in carrying out a review during omicron and covid—we want to do it as the industry comes out—so that will be forthcoming. He asked a sensible question about continued monitoring, which will happen in two ways. First, he will be familiar with me having said many times at the Dispatch Box when we were in the midst of the pandemic that the UK was carrying out up to 50% of the genomic sequencing in the entire world. That figure is now different, because we have helped and other countries have caught up, so, although we are carrying on our programme, much of that genomic sequencing is happening around the world rather than needing to be done specifically here. Secondly, we have the programme led by the Office for National Statistics that carries on finding out where coronavirus is in the country and the extent to which different variants might be starting to take hold. We can therefore continue to monitor things comprehensively through both genomic sequencing and the covid-19 infection survey of the population.

May I express my gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for removing all covid-19 international travel restrictions for those coming into the United Kingdom? Will he join me in welcoming the reopening of the south terminal at Gatwick airport on 27 March and the thousands of job vacancies now available and needing to be filled as we recover our industry and our economy?

I do not think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that virtually nobody in the House has done more than my hon. Friend to promote the case of the hard-pressed aviation sector during the last two years of the crisis. It is great news that Gatwick’s south terminal will reopen on 27 March; I very much hope to be there for that. I know that he shares my enthusiasm for all the work that carried on during the crisis to aim for jet zero, to help clean up the aviation sector and ensure that, by 2050, we have not only a booming British aviation sector but a cleaner one.

I am delighted that England is following Norway, Ireland, Hungary and several other countries in lifting all remaining travel restrictions. Will the Secretary of State assure me that when the public inquiry into covid happens, it will have full access to all the various and quite secretive committees that the Government relied on when they imposed those travel restrictions? Many of us believe, and growing evidence suggests, that for countries such as ours, which were never going to have a zero-covid strategy, the draconian travel restrictions did more harm than good.

For the sake of completeness, I will mention Ireland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway and Slovenia, which have either removed or will shortly remove measures to put themselves in the same position. I say “of leading economies” because I am not aware of any other G7 economy that has gone as far as us in scrapping restrictions and making it easier to travel.

The inquiry will be there to learn the lessons from covid, and it is incredibly important that it does so not just in relation to travel but across everything that happened during covid. Of course, we want to learn the lessons because, without learning the lessons of the past, we can never improve things for the future.

I have learned from being in this House that when the Government do something good and well, few Opposition Back Benchers turn up—we have only one today—and the three shadow Ministers have heckled from a sedentary position because they know that the Government have done a good job. Is it not true that the Prime Minister’s leadership by getting the vaccine and unlocking our society has allowed us to have freedom day for travel this Friday? Does the Secretary of State have to sign a piece of paper or lay a statutory instrument before the House? If he just needs to sign a piece of paper, why does he not do so tonight so that we can start tomorrow?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all remember Margaret Keenan receiving that very first properly approved vaccination in the entire world, and that happened in this country. It was not just that: we also got the vaccination programme out first and, critically, the booster programme out first and showed world leadership. Actually—this is partly in response to the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh); I did not pick up this point—2.6 billion people have received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccination, so we have made more of a contribution than any other country in the world. It is absolutely right to recognise all of that.

I do not know the technicalities of quite what happens—I imagine that we must sign an SI—but I do know that we need a few days to alert everyone to change the systems for Border Force and ensure that people already away can adjust to the change. However, it is only three more sleeps, is it not? I hope that my hon. Friend can contain himself.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. It is the right thing to do and, as I have said before, freedom works. However, may I press him on his answer to the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) about ensuring that, after a period of having been wound down to deal with fewer passengers, ports of entry are ready to give that warm British welcome to people either returning home or visiting for travel and leisure? I heard a horror story the other day that, at Heathrow terminal 5, e-gates were telling everybody to seek assistance but there was only one official. Will he do everything possible to support our airports and work with the Home Office to ensure that all ports of entry are ready to receive people?

I absolutely will do that. I know that Border Force has been working hard, sometimes under difficult conditions. Many people do not realise that every time there was a change in which countries were added or removed or rules changed—there were hundreds of them—that often required not just software but hardware changes. As a passenger put their passport down on an egate, it was reading not only their passport for permission to enter but checking the passenger locator form, their vaccination status and how they had filled in the form—it was doing an awful lot of work behind the scenes. Updates, unfortunately, commonly caused breaks in that system. As far as I know, we were the only country in the world to even attempt anything as ambitious on e-gates—I certainly came across no equivalent in North America or Europe. It is really important that much of that bureaucracy will be removed as that should smooth things out. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), I will discuss Border Force resourcing with the Home Secretary.

I think that everybody in the House will warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about extra vaccines being distributed around the world. Will he ensure that a list of countries receiving them is put in the Library for us to check? Will he assure me that a good number of very poor Commonwealth countries are prioritised in the programme?

It is certainly the case that the vast majority of the vaccinations through Oxford-AstraZeneca have gone to mid and lower-income countries. Many will have been used by Commonwealth countries. I should have answered in detail the point made on that by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). I will place a note in the House of Commons Library to provide a breakdown of where those have gone and answer the further question about how the 100 million is worked out. But I think all of us in the House, regardless of which side we sit on, can be incredibly proud of this country’s literally global lead in protecting the world against coronavirus.

Axing all the remaining covid restrictions for outgoing travellers will be warmly welcomed by those working in the travel, aviation, airport and aerospace sectors, including my wife and many Gloucester constituents. Those are all areas of expertise and employment across the UK. Does my right hon. Friend share my pride and enthusiasm for the new record-breaking electric aircraft, the Spirit of Innovation, developed at Gloucestershire airport, and the new hydrogen aircraft developed at Kemble airport, also in Gloucestershire, showing that in a county famed for the first ever jet-engined aircraft take-off, we can now focus on an exciting future for travel and aviation at much less cost to the environment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I do not want to disappoint him or his wife. It is incoming traffic that will have the reduction in bureaucracy. On outgoing, we still encourage people to check with the FCDO. As I pointed out a couple of times, most other countries still have some restrictions. But is he right about that electric aircraft, which is a Rolls-Royce project—the world’s fastest flying electric aircraft being produced right here in the UK? He is. ZeroAvia is producing the world’s first hydrogen aircraft, which is now on its second version, a larger 20-seat aircraft. There is a lot of innovation, backed by £180 million, to assist all this decarbonisation of aviation. It is very exciting and it leads to a very strong future for British aviation.