Private Notice Question
My Lords, these new measures at the border are a necessary step to protect the public and our world-class vaccination programme. Every layer of protection we have put in place will help reduce the risk of transmission of the virus and prevent any potential new strain entering the UK. All measures will be kept under review and, if required, further action will be taken to add another layer of protection against transmission.
My Lords, given the good news on vaccines, should we not be ever more vigilant on our borders? The 22 December meeting of SAGE identified the rapid spread of a variant in South Africa, and the NERVTAG meeting of 13 January warned of the rapid growth of variant B1351 in South Africa and called for enhanced border measures. Since then, how many people have entered the UK from South Africa? Why, as Yvette Cooper said yesterday, is it still possible for people to return home to the UK from South Africa and go straight into the community with no tests on arrival, no quarantine hotels and no quarantine taxis? Scotland has announced extensive new quarantine rules today. When will the Government get a grip and bring in the much tougher quarantine measures they should have introduced weeks ago?
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. He is right that additional vigilance is required. The advent of new variants that could have higher transmissibility or escape the vaccine is a complete game-changer, and that is why we have changed our approach to border management. We have upgraded our border control measures, and there will be further government announcements on that. We have introduced red lists of countries where there are variants of concern, and we have implemented Project Eagle, the tracing project to track down those who have tested positive in genomic sequencing for variants of concern.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Australia is imposing a two-week quarantine for all travellers flying in from abroad, with no exceptions. My son, who has dual nationality, is flying out in March to take up a job. He must have a negative Covid test result before flying and stay in a hotel for two weeks at his own expense. Australia has shown the way; when does the Minister expect the UK to follow?
The noble Baroness is completely right to cite Australia, and we take our hat off to its remarkable achievement in using its island status to protect itself against the virus. We are responding to the challenge of new variants by upgrading our measures, and announcements on this will be made shortly. The CMO’s view on the variants of concern so far is that we should have a proportionate system, which means an upgrading and not necessarily an Australia-style system. But we are putting in place the kinds of measures that could be upgraded to an Australia-style system were there to be a threat of significant magnitude.
My Lords, yesterday, the UK recorded 16,840 new Covid cases. Australia and New Zealand recorded six and one respectively. Of course, we should not be encouraging people to travel to the UK, but some people have no choice—for family reasons, for example. I encourage my noble friend, before we adopt a blanket approach to hotel quarantine, which may be appropriate for high-risk countries, to think about the cost. Can he reassure me that the Government are more than capable of adopting a dynamic, risk-based approach to hotel quarantine?
My noble friend is right that we have to be proportionate and balance risk. I flag that we are aware of the extreme measures some passengers go to in order to avoid boundary controls. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to undertake journeys that, frankly, are dangerous and irresponsible. I would normally consider travel a right of enormous value which I would fight for individuals to have. But in a pandemic, it is different. In a pandemic, travelling is dangerous. You may be taking a variant of significant danger to the country of your destination, and it cannot be regarded as something done easily and lightly, as in normal times.
The next speaker is the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton. Is the noble Baroness with us? We will come back to the noble Baroness. Let us go to the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere.
My Lords, the Minister said that he believed there was a basic right to travel. I put it to him that there is an even greater right to live, yet we have the highest death rate per head of the population of any country in the world. Should we not put the right to live at the top of our agenda?
I could not agree with the noble Lord more: the right to live trumps all other rights. It is a sad fact that, while we would normally do everything we could in a liberal democracy to protect rights such as the freedom to travel, under current circumstances these are trumped by the right to live, and that is why I call on all people to limit their travel wherever they humanly can. There is simply no excuse for going to Dubai, taking Instagram photographs of yourself and claiming that that is business travel. You are putting your friends and loved ones at risk, and this Government will not tolerate it.
My Lords, given the significant community transmission of the South African variant, how confident is the Minister that we have in place today sufficient measures to stop the equivalent happening again? It does appear the Government are again running behind events.
My Lords, matters are evenly balanced. There are 143 confirmed and probable cases of the variant first identified in South Africa. Most of those have been connected with travel to South Africa, and those involved have been isolated. There are around a dozen in respect of which the chain of transmission is not fully understood. We have put in place a substantial team of dedicated tracing professionals to track down those variants of concern, along with teams in the relevant postcodes, so we are doing both a fire blanket of testing within the community and forensic detective analysis to track down the chain of transmission. It is my belief that that will be enough to keep the spread of the virus under control in this country, but we are watchful and concerned.
We will return to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, after the next speaker, who is the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey of Didcot.
My Lords, it may seem paradoxical to impose tough restrictions just when a version of the winning post is in sight, thanks to the Minister and his colleagues’ excellent vaccine rollout. It may give us some comfort if he could update us on how effective his experts think the vaccines will be against the new variants.
My Lords, the good news to date has been that the vaccines have proved extremely robust. Certainly, the readout on the Kent domestic variant and its mutations are extremely positive. A huge amount of work is going on to understand the Brazil and South Africa variants; it seems that the latter does something to escape the vaccine, but not enough for the vaccine not to be extremely useful. The news to date is encouraging but we are extremely watchful. If a variant or mutation emerges that can escape the vaccine, we will do everything we can to protect that essential national project.
My Lords, I hope you can hear me—I was frozen. After quarantining in a hotel for five days or more and having had a test which proved negative, would a person be released? If a person had to return to the UK because they needed urgent medical treatment, would they be admitted directly to a safe hospital?
My Lords, the details of the isolation protocols have not been announced yet. However, I suggest that the amount of time needed to flush out those who have got an infection from travel may need to be longer than the five days the noble Baroness indicated. For those who have urgent need of hospitalisation, of course the NHS is there for them; we have the PHE and infection control protocols in place to protect them.
My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that any system introduced will be resilient enough to cope with a significant inflow from Hong Kong, if that were to occur? As he will know, the Government have just granted the right of entry—and, later, settlement—to up to 5.4 million from Hong Kong, roughly the entire population of Scotland.
My Lords, I share the noble Lord’s pride in that measure and concern that we extend a warm hand of friendship to those from Hong Kong. He raises the point extremely well. I would like to think that any system we put in place would be resilient to surge demand of the kind he indicates, but I will take his point back to the department and check that everything is being done accordingly.
My Lords, UK borders have knowingly been left open and potentially exposed people to new strains of the virus, rather than the implementation of the prompt, concerted action advised by SAGE and a comprehensive hotel quarantine system brought in for all UK arrivals. Does the Minister accept that the current 10-day self-isolation system has failed? If so, why is the policy still being pursued for the majority of travellers? We have been promised that hotel quarantine will be implemented for some countries as soon as possible, with some reports suggesting that this will not be enforced until the week of 15 February. Can the Minister confirm whether this is the target date? Will additional measures be in place for travellers from the red list of countries in the interim? Finally, does he accept that a partial quarantine is doomed to fail, given that global travellers may move across many countries during their journey, passing through multiple travel hubs and departure lounges while encountering and spending time close to many other travellers along the way?
My Lords, I acknowledge the detailed and perfectly reasonable questions raised by the noble Baroness, but I am unable to answer them all in detail. A Statement will be forthcoming from the Government on exactly those questions. I remind her that travel has come down by 90% in a comparative period. She is entirely right that travel patterns are complex; any measures we put in place will recognise that many travellers leapfrog from one country to another, brushing against others, and that the spread of the virus cannot be narrowly contained to travel corridors in the way one would sometimes like to hope.
The noble Lord is entirely right to be concerned about those who travel for essential reasons but who may face some hardship through their journey. We are putting in place special arrangements to ensure they are looked after in the best way possible. However, I remind him and the House that the purpose of these measures is to reduce dramatically the amount of travel. Travel is no longer a right; it is a danger, and as a result everyone needs to think very seriously before they commit to a journey.
My Lords, we need to control the new variant strains entering the UK by controlling the travel corridors at airports and seaports if we want to avoid a third wave of Covid-19. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government deem the mandatory hotel quarantine an important step to ensure the safety of the nation from further devastating deaths from Covid-19 and overwhelming pressure on our NHS, considering the huge impact this would have on immigration, police, medical staff and the parties waiting in hotels at airports and seaports around the country?
The thrust of the noble Lord’s question is entirely right. We are now living in different circumstances; the variants of concern could emerge as a real threat to the vaccine. This Government will do whatever we can to protect the vaccine deployment and the reassurance it has given to millions of people, and to protect our hospitals, our NHS and life. We will therefore do whatever it takes. He is right that travel arrangements for people must be subject to mandatory control; it is not possible to hope that people will go home and isolate in cases such as this. Hotels may play an important part in ensuring that that mandate is truly effective. Our plans are being processed at the moment; our monitoring of the variants of concern has been upgraded massively, with huge investment in international surveillance. We will update the House accordingly.
My Lords, I am afraid the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed.