The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 9 February.
“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on new measures to keep this country safe from coronavirus. Thanks to our collective efforts, we are turning a corner. Cases of coronavirus have fallen 47% in the last two weeks, and they are falling in all parts of the UK, but we are not there yet. Hospitalisations are falling, but there are still many more people in hospital than at the April or November peaks, and the number of deaths, while falling, is still far too high.
Our vaccination programme is growing every day. We have now vaccinated over 12.2 million people—almost one in four adults in the United Kingdom—including 91.4% of people aged 80 and above, 95.9% of those aged between 75 and 79, and 77.2% of those aged between 70 and 74, who were the most recent groups to be invited. We have also vaccinated 93.5% of eligible care home residents. We have made such progress in protecting the most vulnerable that we are now asking people who live in England who are aged 70 and over and have not yet had an appointment, to come forward and contact the NHS. You can do that by going online to nhs.uk, or dialling 119, or contacting your local GP practice, so that we can make sure that we reach the remaining people in those groups, even as we expand the offer of a vaccine to younger ages.
These are huge steps forward for us all, and we must protect this hard-fought-for progress by making sure we stay vigilant and secure the nation against new variants of coronavirus that put at risk the great advances that we have made. Coronavirus, just like flu and all other viruses, mutates over time, so responding to new variants as soon as they arise is mission critical to protect ourselves for the long term. We have already built firm foundations, like our genomic sequencing, which allows us to identify new variants, our testing capacity, which allows us to bring in enhanced testing wherever and whenever we find a new variant of concern, and our work to secure vaccines that can be quickly adapted as new strains are identified.
Our strategy to tackle new variants has four parts. First, the lower the case numbers here, the fewer new variants we get, so the work to lower case numbers domestically is crucial. Secondly, as I set out to the House last week, there is enhanced contact tracing, surge testing and genomic sequencing. We are putting that in place wherever a new variant of concern is found in the community, like in Bristol, Liverpool and, as of today, Manchester. Thirdly, there is the work on vaccines to tackle variants, as set out yesterday by Professor Van-Tam. Fourthly, there is health protection at the border, to increase our security against new variants of concern arriving from abroad.
I should like to set out to the House the new system of health measures at the border that will come into force on Monday. The new measures build on the tough action that we have already taken. It is of course illegal to travel abroad without a legally permitted reason to do so, so it is illegal to travel abroad for holidays and other leisure purposes. The minority who are travelling for exceptional purposes will be subject to a specific compliance regime and end-to-end checks throughout the journey here. Every passenger must demonstrate a negative test result 72 hours before they travel to the UK, and every passenger must quarantine for 10 days. Arriving in this country involves a two-week process for all. We have already banned travellers altogether from the 33 most concerning countries on our red list, where the risk of a new variant is greatest, unless they are resident here. But even with those tough measures in place, we must strengthen our defences yet further.
I appreciate what a significant challenge this is. We have been working to get this right across government and with airport operators, passenger carriers and operational partners, including Border Force and the police—I thank them all for their work so far—and we have been taking advice from our Australian colleagues, both at ministerial level and from their leading authorities on quarantine. The message is, ‘Everyone has a part to play in making our borders safe.’ I know this is a very difficult time for both airlines and ports, and I am grateful to them for working so closely with us. They have such an important role to play in protecting this country and putting in place a system so that we can securely restart travel when the time is right—the whole team at the borders working together.
Let me set out the three elements of the strengthened end-to-end system for international arrivals coming into force on 15 February. This new system is for England. We are working on similarly tough schemes with the devolved Administrations, and we are working with the Irish Government to put in place a system that works across the common travel area. The three parts are as follows: hotel quarantine, testing and enforcement.
First, we are setting up a new system of hotel quarantine for UK and Irish residents who have been in red-list countries in the last 10 days. In short, this means that any returning residents from those countries will have to quarantine in an assigned hotel room for 10 days from the time of arrival. Before they travel, they will have to book through an online platform and pay for a quarantine package, costing £1,750 for an individual travelling alone, which includes the hotel, transport and testing. That booking system will go live on Thursday, when we will also publish the full detailed guidance.
Passengers will be able to enter the UK only through a small number of ports that currently account for the vast majority of passenger arrivals. When they arrive, they will be escorted to a designated hotel, which will be closed to guests who are not quarantining, for 10 days, or longer if they test positive for Covid-19 during their stay. We have contracted 16 hotels for an initial 4,600 rooms, and we will secure more as they are needed. People will need to remain in their rooms and, of course, will not be allowed to mix with other guests. There will be visible security in place to ensure compliance, alongside necessary support so that, even as we protect public health, we can look after the people in our care.
Secondly, we are strengthening testing. All passengers are already required to take a pre-departure test and cannot travel to this country if it is positive. From Monday, all international arrivals, whether under home quarantine or hotel quarantine, will be required by law to take further PCR tests on day 2 and day 8 of that quarantine. Passengers will have to book those tests through our online portal before they travel. Anyone planning to travel to the UK from Monday needs to book these tests, and the online portal will go live on Thursday. If either of these post-arrival tests comes back positive, they will have to quarantine for a further 10 days from the date of the test and will, of course, be offered any NHS treatment that is necessary.
Any positive result will automatically undergo genomic sequencing to confirm whether they have a variant of concern. Under home quarantining, the existing test-to-release scheme, which my right honourable friend the Transport Secretary has built so effectively, can still be used from day 5, but that would be in addition to the two mandatory tests. The combination of enhanced testing and sequencing has been a powerful weapon throughout this pandemic, and we will be bringing it to bear so that we can find positive cases, break the chains of transmission and prevent new cases and new variants from putting us at risk.
Thirdly, we will be backing this new system with strong enforcement of both home quarantine and hotel quarantine. People who flout these rules are putting us all at risk. Passenger carriers will have a duty in law to make sure that passengers have signed up for these new arrangements before they travel and will be fined if they do not. We will be putting in place tough fines for people who do not comply. That includes a £1,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take a mandatory test; a £2,000 penalty for any international arrival who fails to take the second mandatory test, as well as automatically extending their quarantine period to 14 days; and a £5,000 fixed penalty notice, rising to £10,000, for arrivals who fail to quarantine in a designated hotel. We are also coming down hard on people who provide false information on the passenger locator form. Anyone who lies on a passenger locator form and tries to conceal that they have been in a country on the red list in the 10 days before arrival here will face a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
These measures will be put into law this week, and I have been working with the Home Secretary, Border Force and the police to make sure that more resources are being put into enforcing these measures. I make no apologies for the strength of these measures, because we are dealing with one of the strongest threats to our public health that we have faced as a nation. I know that most people have been doing their bit, making huge sacrifices as part of the national effort, and these new enforcement powers will make sure that their hard work and sacrifice are not undermined by a small minority who do not want to follow the rules.
In short, we are strengthening the health protection at the border in three crucial ways: hotel quarantine for UK and Irish residents who have visited a red-list country in the past 10 days and home quarantine for all passengers from any other country; a three-test regime for all arrivals; and firm enforcement of pre-departure tests and the passenger locator form. Our fight against this virus has many fronts, and just as we are attacking this virus through our vaccination programme, which protects more people each day, we are buttressing our defences with these vital measures, to protect the progress that together we have worked so hard to accomplish. I commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, a hotel quarantine policy has been debated for months and was finally announced two weeks ago, yet the legislation underpinning the scheme has not been laid. That means that, yet again, Parliament cannot scrutinise and vote on the regulations until after they have been brought into force. Can the Minister advise the House when they will be published and when we will get the opportunity to debate them? I hope that he will be able to assure me that they will not be laid at the 11th hour, as so many other coronavirus regulations have been, which would mean that people who are impacted by this policy and need to implement it will have to get up to speed very fast indeed to make the necessary arrangements.
The UK’s quarantine policy is due to come into effect on Monday. It is exactly a year to the day since I raised this exact issue in your Lordships’ House in response to a Statement repeated by the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackwood. Her answer was basically that the Government would be putting the resource into dealing with quarantine immediately. A year later, “immediately” has not really happened, which is a shame. We have possibly borne the burden of deaths as a result of that, too.
It is also clear to see that there are gaping holes in the Government’s new hotel quarantine system. Figures suggest that thousands of people travelling from higher-risk countries will be missed by the scheme every day. Analysis of passenger data suggests that 10,000 passengers will arrive in the UK on Monday from countries where the South African or Brazilian variants of Covid-19 are circulating but which are not yet on the Government’s “red list”. These people—roughly 19 out of 20 passengers —will avoid hotels and ask to quarantine at home. Yet just three in every 100 people are being checked to ensure that they comply with home quarantine. Does the Minister think that that is good enough? Given that we know that the South African and Brazilian variants of the virus involve a key mutation, E484K, which may help the virus evade antibodies and render the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines less effective, the Government’s failure to secure our borders risks jeopardising the fight against Covid-19 just at the moment when it looks like we are making significant progress. So I hope that the Government will urgently review the policy and extend quarantine to all travellers arriving in the UK.
I turn to the implementation of the policy. Will the Minister update the House on the number of beds in hotel rooms that have been secured for travel quarantine measures? Can he confirm whether they are seeking to expand capacity in anticipation of extending the policy to further countries? What steps are being taken to ensure that staff in quarantine facilities are given adequate PPE? I would also be grateful if the Minister could outline what support and financial assistance will be in place to help people seeking to return to the UK from “red-listed” countries who cannot afford the up-front £1,750 quarantine cost. This is very important, given that, among the numerous categories of travellers, there are likely to be people who had to go abroad at short notice for family emergencies.
Finally, it has been announced that people found to have omitted to reveal that they have travelled from a “red list” country could possibly face up to 10 years in prison under the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981. While the penalties for non-compliance are a core part of any regime, does the Minister accept that a 10-year prison sentence is really disproportionate? It is more severe even than sentences given out for some violent and sexual offences. Sir Keir Starmer has, quite rightly, pointed out that pretending judges would sentence anyone to that long in prison, in court cases that—given the current backlog—will not be heard for several years, is not going help anyone and probably will not deter anyone.
My Lords, the Minister is right to say that it looks as if the corner has been turned on cases, and even on hospitalisations, in this most recent surge. I too, like the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, look forward to actually seeing the quarantine regulations being laid in Parliament. We keep asking for sight of them as early as possible. We have known that this quarantine arrangement was coming in—leaks started in December.
The BMA and other medical groups are concerned that those without GPs must have access to the vaccine. Last week, the Government announced that undocumented migrants can register with GPs for a Covid vaccine without fear of being prosecuted by the Home Office. This is good news, as we need everyone possible in the country to be vaccinated, to keep us all safe. However, the law currently requires the NHS to report those without a defined migration status. This amnesty announcement, based on the suspension of so-called immigration data sharing between the health service and the Government, is temporary, only during the pandemic. What safeguards are there that this data will not be shared after the pandemic is over? A temporary amnesty will not encourage people to come forward if their data can later be shared.
According to Ministry of Justice data, 2,400 Covid-positive cases were recorded in prisons in December—a rise of 70% in a single month. Given that the Government have a legal duty to provide equivalent healthcare to those in prison, can the Minister explain why prisoners in priority groups 1 to 4 started to be vaccinated only from 29 January?
Will the Minister answer a question I asked earlier this week without a response? There have been number of reports of Sitel and other call centre contractors having their contracts reduced by government and immediately sacking track and trace staff because, as a Sitel manager said,
“At this point in time as a business we need to reduce the number of agents because we have done our jobs.”
Can the Minister please confirm or deny that the Government have asked for track and trace staff numbers to be reduced? Do the Government still believe that test, trace and isolate remains a vital part of coming out of this pandemic, or are they totally relying on the vaccine? Everything that the scientists and doctors are telling us is that we will have to continue to take all precautions, such as “hands, face, space”, and will also need all the protection tools, such as test, trace and isolate, for some time to come, otherwise we will be hurtling towards yet more cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
That brings me to borders. On 22 January last year, alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, I asked the Minister’s predecessor what steps were being taken to monitor flights from places where Covid-19 had been confirmed or was suspected. I have repeatedly raised worries that the UK was not following either the World Health Organization advice or the actions of the CDC in America, which has resulted in many cases coming into the UK from China and the Far East and, during February, through those returning from skiing holidays in Italy, France and Austria. Every step of the way, the Government have been too slow in making arrangements to monitor passengers, whether placing them in quarantine at home or, as is now proposed, in quarantine hotels.
Some countries have learned through experience that early action at borders is vital. South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are notable examples. Taiwan should be a role model for us all. It began monitoring passengers arriving as early as 31 December 2019, and shortly afterwards created formal quarantining, both at home and in hotels, with electronic monitoring by health teams. Its Government’s clear communication with its people, providing the carrot of a support package for anyone quarantining, as well as the stick of substantial fines, has meant that a country of 23 million people had, in 2020, fewer than 800 cases, with only seven deaths. One city alone has 3,000 hotel rooms reserved for quarantining; the Government here are proposing 4,000 for the whole of the UK. And the fines in Taiwan are not small, at up to 300,000 New Taiwanese dollars—about £7,500—with one businessman who breached quarantine seven times in three days fined more than £26,000.
Taiwan’s approach is as much about self-isolation as it is about quarantine for those coming from abroad, and the view of the Taiwanese public is that everyone should do their civic duty, helped by the clarity of messaging from the Government and their medical experts. So it is a shame that our Government’s key message is all about the maximum prison sentence. We need as much of the carrot in our approach, rewarding people for self-isolation, preferably by paying their wages and by supporting them with care calls and delivering shopping and medicines, most of which has been notable by its absence to date.
Two things are clear from the worries over the new variants. The UK public want to do their duty. The vast majority of people are complying with lockdown. They also understand that the nature of Covid-19 is changing, and that new variants mean we must change the way we live too. So will the Government please make the changes that we on these Benches have asked for, for over a year, regarding borders? Otherwise, we risk losing all the progress made with vaccinations, we risk children not returning to school, and we risk further and substantial damage to our economy.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful for the questions from the two noble Baronesses. By way of introduction, both the noble Baronesses are entirely right that the variants of concern have been a massive game-changer and the reason for this profound inflection point in our approach to border control. Having invested so much in vaccine deployment, having got it right so emphatically, having been ahead of the world in the identification, development, purchase and now deployment of vaccines, and having got so many people who were at threat of sickness and death into a position of safety, it seems entirely right that we now protect the country from mutations that might escape the vaccine by taking tough measures on the border.
That is different from the situation of a year ago: we had comparable infection rates and were all facing the same virus, which did not seem to mutate for months on end. At that point, the priority was to keep our borders open in order to keep the flow of goods, medicines and essential supplies in the planes, trains and boats that are necessary to support Great Britain. But the variants of concern have completely changed that view. That is why we brought in this new, robust and emphatic regime. It depends, in very large part, on existing legislation, but I reassure noble Lords that our plans are to bring in new regulations, where necessary, at the earliest moment. I hope that that will be very soon.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about international surveillance. That is an important part of our overall plan. In Britain, as noble Lords know, we have the most advanced investment in genomic sequencing anywhere in the world, by far. We are hugely investing in a great dash on capacity, turnaround times, accuracy and the geographic distribution of that surveillance in the UK. But we are also investing in international systems. We have made an open-hearted, big and generous offer to the countries of the world to do genomic sequencing for them, wherever necessary. If anyone wants to send their specimens to the UK, to the Sanger at Cambridge, we will do that for them. We are sending machines, often from Oxford Nanopore, the British diagnostic company, to diagnostic centres in countries that have some genomic capability, to enhance their testing and speed up their turnaround times.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked about the enhanced measures we are putting in place to check when people arrive in the UK. I can reassure her massively, because the system for the passenger landing form has been digitised and hugely enhanced. We have dramatically increased the amount of validation of the data put into the PLF. The pretesting certificates are linked directly to the PLF, and we are working on linking it to the hotel booking and testing forms. We are also putting in enhanced surveillance of those isolating at home, which includes phone calls, SMSs and an increased investment in police time to follow up where there may be suspicion of a breach. We are also making a crystal-clear communication to those who have access to private jet travel that we will not tolerate those who have the resources to pay the fines but feel that they can, or want to, get around these measures.
The application of the hotel quarantine measures to all countries—both red list and amber—is something that we keep under review. There is a rolling review of the red list, and we are putting in place the necessary infrastructure, should it be required, for a blanket hotel quarantine protocol on all travellers to the UK.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, kind of answered the question on the number of hotels, for which I am enormously grateful. We have currently booked 16 hotels with 4,600 rooms. However, I reassure her that this is an on-call framework, and we will have access to a massively increased number of hotel rooms if that should prove necessary.
But I have to be clear: the signal from the British Government and the instruction from the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care is that there should be no need to travel other than under the most exceptional circumstances. We are not trying to encourage anyone to travel, and we expect the number of people travelling to and from the UK to remain at a low level for the foreseeable future. For those who are currently overseas and seek to return but are experiencing some hardship because they were not expecting, did not plan for and cannot afford the considerable cost of the hotel quarantine, we will publish schemes to spread the payment of that to help people out.
Regarding the legislation, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, made a big point of saying that a sentence of 10 years was too long for a breach of contract. I remind her that Section 1 of the Fraud Act 2006 creates a general offence of fraud and introduces a number of ways of committing it, including fraud by false representation and fraud by failure to disclose information. Committing fraud is a very serious offence. Not everyone who commits their first fraud will get a custodial sentence, but if people repeatedly breach these restrictions or put the lives of others at risk, it will be up to either the magistrates’ court or, ultimately, the Crown Court to decide on the sentence. The maximum sentence is 10 years and it is quite right that it should be. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, made a very good point when she referred to Taiwan, which I shall mention in a moment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about the data flows on undocumented migrants and the temporary amnesty. I reassure her that it is absolutely our intention to get everyone in the UK vaccinated, whatever their status. We are completely status blind when it comes to distribution of the vaccine, but we need to know who you are before we inject you with drugs—that is a basic clinical need and one that we cannot avoid.
She asked specific questions about the flow of data and whether this would be a temporary amnesty or would last longer. I do not have access to the precise answer to that question but am happy to commit to write to her on that important point.
The noble Baroness asked about prisons. She is entirely right to be concerned. We have had a terrific track record on protecting prisoners from this disease over the year, but she is right that in recent weeks epidemics have emerged in prisons. We are working incredibly hard to deploy a very large amount of testing and, where necessary, implementing isolation, and the vaccine has been rolled out to those who are qualified.
Turning to Sitel managers, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that we are enormously thankful to all those who have contributed to the tracing operation. We balance the workload between a variety of providers, and Sitel is just one of several that we have. There is no question of our backing off from our tracing operations—quite the opposite. Test, trace and isolate remains an important part of our armoury and it only increases. In recent times, we have doubled up on our commitment to the Lighthouse labs, which have proved cost-effective, accurate and fast. The genomics turnaround in tracking variants of concern has been remarkably efficient. On tracing and VOCs, Project Eagle is working extremely well and I saw incredibly impressive numbers on that this morning. Pharmacovigilance around the vaccine is being supported by test and trace, and the creation of the NIHP is apace.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, mentioned Taiwan. Given that I am married to a Taiwanese wife, I can absolutely bear testimony to the remarkable achievement of that island nation. Taiwan was hard hit in 2003 by SARS, a time I remember well, since my Christmas was cancelled. It learned the lesson and applied important measures. The island has the advantage of social cohesion, but both the stick and the carrot were thoughtfully used, as the noble Baroness rightly pointed out. It created a green list country with a remarkably low level of infection and death, and that is a lesson we can all learn from.
The public are doing their duty and absolutely understand the threat of variants of concern. It is incredibly impressive and I am optimistic for the future.
My Lords, I support the government plans for travel quarantine to reduce the risk of importing new variants of SARS-CoV-2 that may be more contagious and get around vaccine-induced immunity. Both Australian and New Zealand studies have shown that, despite testing prior to flights, the risk of transmitting the virus on flights, particularly long-haul flights, remains as shown by the New Zealand study. My question relates to airline crew, particularly on long-haul flights. What measures do the Government plan against the risk of transmission from an infected crew member?
The noble Lord is, as ever, cutting to the chase. The role of hotel staff, transport to and from airports and the flight crew themselves is incredibly important. As the noble Lord probably knows, the outbreak in Melbourne that hit Australia hard was caused in part by the bus drivers from the airport to hotels becoming vectors of infection. That created an unfortunate outbreak, which was hit extremely hard with a long lockdown to squeeze out the outbreak. We are putting in all the right, responsible measures to segregate crew, keep them apart from the rest of the population and ensure that they are, wherever possible, vaccinated against the virus so that they cannot be vectors of transmission.
My Lords, having flagged up the quarantine restrictions, tens of thousands of people from around the world have been returning to the UK in advance of Monday’s deadline to avoid unaffordable costs in hotel bills. This is resulting in many connecting flights across the UK being unexpectedly packed. I understand that this is leading to large numbers of passengers, on arrival at major UK satellite airports, waiting shoulder to shoulder around baggage carousels for their luggage, without airline or baggage-handling staff in evidence, no social distancing and a serious risk of exhausted passengers with low resistance being prone to Covid infection. Will my noble friend the Minister consult colleagues and ensure rigorous application of all social distancing restrictions around all domestic baggage carousels over the remaining three days and beyond?
My Lords, I am grateful for the question but my information is slightly different from that articulated by my noble friend. Passengers overseas have heard the message loud and clear, and there has not been, as far as I understand, the kind of rush that he describes. In fact, there has been a lot of sensible behaviour by passengers. We are grateful to London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London City, Birmingham and Farnborough, which to date are the authorised red list airports and have put in place exactly the kind of social distancing measures around transit from the aircraft to the PCP, from the PCP to the baggage hall, and from the baggage hall to the transport to the hotel. A huge amount of thought has been put into the personnel, signage and arrangements to ensure that that is done in a way that applies the best possible hygiene measures.
My Lords, the Minister knows that I have great respect for him, but I want to put a slightly colder note into this debate, which also reflects on the debate about the previous Statement. We have heard a lot of hugely optimistic and very confident statements from Members of the House and the Secretary of State. It strikes me that we must be a bit more cautious. As the Minister knows, the one country that has conducted more vaccinations than us, proportionate to the population, is Israel. It has also had a complete lockdown of airports, so that there is no ingress at all into the country. Yet puzzlingly, and not even the Israelis can explain this, the infection rate has not gone nearly as well as predicted or expected. Can he comment on that?
Furthermore, what does the Minister intend that the Government should do with regard to poor students returning, as they need to, for their exams? These students are deeply needed by the country and, if they have a good experience here, they were support us in the future when they are adults and working. I would be very grateful for his answer.
The noble Lord is right to cite the example of Israel. It is indeed extremely worrying. I touched upon this point when replying to my noble friend Lord Hamilton on the previous Statement. Undoubtedly the fear is that you vaccinate a large proportion of your most vulnerable population but those who have not been vaccinated—mainly the young—feel a licence to go out and socialise and create an enormous problem by spreading the disease on a large scale among the wider population. As I alluded to in my earlier answer, we currently have an infection rate of between 1% and 2%, It is not impossible that it could rise to 10% or 20%. Should that happen with the kind of proportions of people who then end up being hospitalised whatever their age, or suffering from long-term impacts of the disease, we would have a very big problem on our hands. That is why the Government are moving cautiously. I strike an optimistic tone in my answers, but I am extremely cautious and considered in my approach to policy, as are the Government.
My Lords, hotel quarantine measures, albeit late and incomplete, are nevertheless welcome—better late than never. However, as things stand, mankind cannot outpace the mutating virus without a global vaccine plan in place. When do the Government think that the time will be right to call for a leader’s summit to develop a global collaborative effort to deal with this pandemic?
My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Baroness. As I said earlier, we are not safe until we are all safe. That is an absolute axiom. It will soon become a cheesy remark but that does not make it any less true. Britain is totally committed to the principle of global distribution of the vaccine. We are extremely proud of AstraZeneca, which has a profit-free approach to the intellectual property around the vaccine. It is quite possible that as a cheap, easily administered and portable vaccine, it may become the common global standard for vaccination. It is my hope that it will be rolled out globally, and that it is updated as necessary, as mutations and variants of concern begin to affect it. Britain is very committed to CEPI, Gavi and ACT. These are the major financial commitments that the world has joined in to get the vaccine to the developing world, and we are using our chairmanship of the G7 to champion that agenda.
The variants of concern are already here, so self-isolation is vital for those who test positive in the community, yet many fail to do so because they will lose wages. Four million people in the UK have had Covid. The NAO says that the Government have spent over £270 billion on the pandemic so far. That is the equivalent of £67,500 per person infected. If that is the cost of each person who is infected by those who do not self-isolate, how low would the R number have to be for it not to be cost effective to pay at least £1,000 to everyone who tests positive, to ensure that they self-isolate?
I am grateful for the noble Lord’s fascinating mathematics, but there are other principles at stake here and I am not quite sure that his arithmetic can be leaned upon. One of those principles is personal responsibility. We cannot pay the entire nation a huge wage to stay at home for the entire epidemic; we have neither the cash resources nor the value base to do that. We must look to people to do the right thing. If we do not, we will end up with a country that is dependent on the Exchequer for its money and has the wrong values for the kind of enterprise economy that we need to build to get out of this epidemic.
Does the Minister realise that the imposition of a 10-year prison sentence for providing an inaccurate travel history on Covid forms is wholly disproportionate? Existing powers should not be misused for this purpose. Such a measure would require proper reflection and parliamentary debate, and it should therefore be in a new Bill if the Government wish to persist with it. In the meantime, will the Minister amend the present proposals significantly?
I do not agree with my noble friend on this in any way—fraud is fraud. If you put people in danger, you deserve to serve the consequences. It will be up to either the magistrate or the Crown Court to determine the sentence. The sentence is laid out in law, not by me or any new measure. Those who put the entire nation at risk by bringing variants of concern into the country should be aware that the courts may take an extremely dim view of their actions.
My Lords, I am going to pass the baton to the next speaker as the points I wished to raise have already been addressed. However, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, whose performance as a torchbearer at the Dispatch Box is exemplary by anybody’s standards. I have recently been jabbed myself, and the whole vaccination process from start to finish is commendable for being conducted with efficiency and courteousness, making one proud to be a Brit. We will be on to a winner if we replicate that in global Britain.
I am extremely grateful for the noble Viscount’s kind remarks. They are rightly directed at those responsible for the deployment of the vaccine. The NHS itself has been a central player in all that, as have our academic colleagues, particularly at Oxford University but also Imperial, as well as others who have contributed. I will take his remarks back to the Department of Health and Social Care. It has been a very tough year, and I am extremely grateful for his remarks.
My Lords, the Minister is right that there must be a penalty for lying about which countries you have been to in these circumstances, but I am surprised at how confident he is that the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981 is a good tool for this purpose. Some offences under it do not attract a ten-year maximum but a two-year maximum, and it seems unlikely that a court would impose a substantial custodial sentence when comparing this with other offences. Does he not recognise that all the headlines about a 10-year prison sentence undermine credibility in the Government’s strategy at a time when we need to support and encourage it?
My Lords, I endorse what the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, but I would also say that the Minister’s private office must have had an interesting time supporting him in the last few months. I have two very brief points, and I am sorry that they are detailed. Can he tell us how the rich and famous returning home in private aircraft and landing at one of these five airports will be treated? Will they be treated like anybody else? Secondly, while children under 11 are not covered, can he explain how unaccompanied children over 11 will be dealt with in quarantine and what safeguarding facilities and procedures have been put in place?
My Lords, we have only one package in hotel quarantine; there is no VIP suite, so those arriving in their Learjets at Farnborough will have to check in with all the rest of us. As for the children, the noble Lord raises an important point. I know that the issue has been discussed and that provisions have been put in place, but I am afraid I do not have the details to hand. I would be glad to write to him with them in due course.
My Lords, the vaccine rollout has been an incredible success. We all look forward to the road map out of lockdown expected later this month that the Minister referred to in the previous debate, and that includes our world-leading aviation sector. I support the measures being taken to protect our population against Covid-19 and now is not the time to reopen our skies but, given that it will take airlines something like three months to prepare for a return to flying, can the Minister give me any reassurance that the aviation sector, which will play a crucial role in our economic recovery from Covid when it is safe to do so, will be included in the forthcoming road map?
I completely endorse my noble friend’s comments. I am personally extremely committed to travelling. I would fight for the right to travel and I believe in its value. I am extremely grateful to the airports, the airlines, the hospitality industry and all those involved in travel for the huge contribution they have made to the sum of human wealth and experience. It is heartbreaking that we are having to bring in these measures and it is done with huge regret. The cost and implications for the businesses and employees involved is extremely harsh, and we regret it enormously. It is simply a fact of the fight against this pandemic that it is necessary. I cannot confirm for sure that details of a timetable for airlines will be in the schedule in the week of 22 February, but I assure my noble friend that we are in constant touch with both airlines and airports. Their arguments to us are extremely well made and their plight is understood and sympathised with, and when the time is right we will do everything we can to support the travel industry in getting back to where it once was.
The Minister told the House in his earlier response to the Front Benches that there was no point in securing our borders before the new variants emerged. Was that not exactly when we should have closed the borders in order to prevent the new variants arriving in our country, rather than shutting them once they had? Why did he suggest that the new variants were unexpected when, as I understand it, mutations were always highly likely, if not inevitable?
The virus mutates all the time and minute variations have happened from the very beginning. However, this virus has been unusual in not having profound mutations; it had not changed its seriousness, its transmissibility or its escapology in a meaningful way until the end of last year. Those were not—how shall I put it?—completely unexpected, but they had not been identified before. When they were identified, we changed our tactics, our strategy and our approach. Our determination to keep out variants of concern is manifested in these proposals, and we have moved extremely swiftly to enforce border control as the threat has mounted.
My Lords, I want to follow up on that question. The SAGE minutes of 21 January make clear that
“reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants … due to the time lag between the emergence and identification of variants of concern, and the potential for indirect travel via a third country”.
By confining the quarantine measures to travel from red-list countries, are the Government not ignoring the SAGE warning about indirect travel?
My Lords, SAGE is entirely right that we have to be careful about indirect travel. That is why we have introduced a passenger form that requires people to detail all their recent travels. It is why we have attributed to the filling-in of the form very serious enforcement measures, including the potential for a large custodial sentence if it is filled in incorrectly. It is why we are using all the benefits of technology and of airline databases in order to track people’s travel and ensure that they are not in any way misleading us or skipping around borders to get here. The noble Lord is right that this is a very serious matter. This is a 21st-century pandemic and we are determined to use the techniques of the 21st century to keep out variants of concern. Countries such as Taiwan, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have demonstrated that if you use thoughtful 21st-century methods then you can make a big impact on transmission, and that is what we are determined to do.
In his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, the Minister said that
“the crew are, wherever possible, vaccinated.”
It was not clear from context whether the Minister was referring only to plane and train crews or also to bus drivers and quarantine hotel staff. Is this a change in government policy to prioritise the vaccination of key workers, as the Green Party has been calling for?
While I acknowledge the Green Party’s views on this matter, the JCVI has been clear about what prioritisation levels 1 to 4 are. As I said earlier, we will be looking at the other prioritisation lists in time. I am in no way signalling a change in government policy, because that, I am afraid to say, is not in my gift.
My Lords, we seem always to be talking about holidaymakers. There is a small amount of legitimate business still being carried out in Europe. A few days ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe met in Strasbourg under suitable conditions, with no Covid cases reported at the end of that meeting. NATO and the European institutions are also holding a limited number of meetings. Could the Government at least accept that some legitimate business has to go on across frontiers, even at this time? Or are we going to be like the late Markus Wolf of the Stasi and try to do the impossible by closing down the country—and, in the end, discovering it will not work?
My noble friend of all people should know that it is an unfortunate comparison to make between the quite legitimate efforts of the Government to keep out killer viruses with those of a nasty East German regime for which I have no sympathy whatever. We have seen that a large amount of business that we previously thought required travel does not require travel. I must admit I am extremely surprised by the news that the Council of Europe thought it was a great idea to get together for a meeting. It is a decision I am querying, and when I get back to the department I will chat to my Foreign Office colleagues to see if that really was a sensible thing to happen.
My Lords, while the Act may have long existed, its attachment to mis-filling out forms certainly has not. It is hard to imagine that at any stage Parliament intended that filling out a form misleadingly, however serious the circumstances, should attract a 10-year sentence. Surely this is something, right or wrong, whatever the principles and whatever the Government might believe is the right thing to do, that should go through Parliament for approval. A 10-year sentence, equivalent to many firearms charges and other serious offences, is surely something that should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny before it is imposed.
My Lords, the noble Lord seems to be forgetting that it is not Parliament that is going to be sending people to prison but the courts, and courts are perfectly capable of interpreting the law. They are perfectly capable of assessing the nature and gravity of the offence. I am simply repeating the section of the Act on which people will be prosecuted if they commit a fraud. I am reminding noble Lords and all those thinking about committing fraud on their passenger locator form that the maximum sentence for committing fraud is 10 years, and it will be up to the courts to decide what kind of sentence they apply.
My Lords, I first thank the Minister and the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty for a very useful session yesterday on Covid-19 therapeutics. I found it extremely informative. I can see the logic and the good sense behind the quarantine policy—but, bearing in mind Lord Acton’s famous dictum, and knowing that no court will send anybody to prison for 10 years for incorrect information being put on a form under the Fraud Act, does my noble friend not realise that the Secretary of State’s crazed, hollow and exaggerated threats about 10 years in jail undermine the whole policy? If he does not agree with that, could he please defend them? Because so far, I am afraid, I find myself agreeing, unusually, with the two Liberal Democrats, the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Beith.
My Lords, I think I have made the point reasonably clearly, but I am happy to make it again: it is up to the courts to decide how long people go to prison for and it is up to Parliament to decide on Acts. The Act is very clear; it was made in 2006, and it is up to the Crown Court to decide for how long someone goes to prison. It is unfortunate that my noble friend described the Secretary of State in those terms. It is the kind of language that does him no credit. These are extremely important measures. They are devised to protect the country and the vaccine from the very serious threat of mutations of the disease, and they are enormously supported by the public.
My Lords, I welcome the tightening of controls to prevent the introduction and spread of new variants of the virus. Will the Minister say whether the policy deals with international travellers who have a stopover for a connecting flight in, say, eight hours or even overnight? Will the road map that the Prime Minister will roll out on 22 February include a flight plan showing how and when the quarantine controls might be lifted, as they are extremely damaging to the travel and holiday sector and to the mental health of the nation, to which the Minister has already referred? Finally, has the Minister yet booked his summer holiday?
My Lords, the arrangements for those changing planes in British airports are spelled out in considerable detail. We are not encouraging people to overnight when changing planes. If they overnight, they will be invited to spend 10 days in hotel quarantine, which I think will be a suitable incentive for those who might be thinking of such a travel plan. Those who remain airside will be able to change planes. Those who land in, say, England and are going to end up in Scotland will quarantine in England, and those who fly into Scotland to enter England will quarantine in Scotland. These are the kinds of provisions that we are putting in place to ensure that the quarantine is as effective as possible.
My Lords, I completely endorse the praise for my noble friend and, indeed, his private office. I fully support the measures the Government are introducing, and I look forward to discussing them in detail in due course. Would it be possible to consider the confiscation of a passport, at least for UK nationals, for a flagrant and dangerous contravention of the quarantine regulations, perhaps particularly by those who think they can afford the fines, as he mentioned earlier? I seem to recall that we were able to do this for football hooligans.