Motion to Regret
That, while welcoming the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations 2021, this House regrets that they were not laid until 15 February despite the warning from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on 21 January that “reactive, geographically targeted” travel bans “cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants” of COVID-19; further regrets that Her Majesty’s Government failed to prevent the Brazilian strain of COVID-19 entering the United Kingdom; further regrets that the policy only applies to 33 “red list” countries and that 99 per cent of passengers arriving in the United Kingdom are therefore exempt; and calls upon Her Majesty’s Government to implement a comprehensive hotel quarantine on all United Kingdom arrivals to prevent the importation of new variants of COVID-19.
Relevant document: 46th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, I very much look forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Chapman, who I know will bring great experience and wisdom to the House.
This Motion is necessary because of the lack of parliamentary scrutiny and the inadequacy of the Government’s policy for preventing the importation of new variants of Covid-19 from international travel. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations 2021 were made on 12 February—I think the Minister and I agree that it would be really helpful if the numbers of these statutory instruments were put on to the agenda by the House authorities—and came into force at 4 am on 15 February 2021 without any parliamentary scrutiny.
Although the Minister will be aware that the House is concerned about the use of the emergency “made affirmative” procedure for coronavirus regulations, in this instance the Government have gone one step further by using the “made negative” procedure to introduce the powers contained in these regulations, which requires a debate—a Motion to debate them at all. Frankly, there is no emergency here, just a lack of prompt decision-making over a year when the regulations could have been in place and could have been properly debated and scrutinised. Given that the regulations create a system of mandatory quarantine backed by criminal sanction, give the police power to enter people’s houses and allow individuals to be detained, searched, and their belongings seized, these are not minor changes in the law and should not have been enacted without proper scrutiny.
Furthermore, the regulations were laid before Parliament fewer than three days before they came into force. This is a breach of parliamentary convention that a negative statutory instrument will not come into force until 21 calendar days after it has been laid. Laying these regulations under the emergency procedure at the supposedly eleventh hour, as so many other coronavirus regulations have been made, means that individuals and businesses affected by hotel quarantine had less than one working day to get to grips with the details of the scheme, raising several rule-of-law concerns surrounding the accessibility and foreseeability of the law. The Minister needs to explain to the House why these regulations were laid under the “made negative” procedure and the use of urgent powers.
I hope that the House will understand that we on these Benches do not oppose the introduction of hotel quarantine—quite the contrary—but that my Motion highlights serious concerns about the inadequacy of the scheme. Thousands of people are travelling from countries where South African or Brazilian variants of Covid-19 are circulating which are not on the Government’s red list. These people—roughly 19 out of 20 passengers—will avoid hotels and are being asked to quarantine at home, and yet only three out of every 100 people are being checked to ensure that they are complying. Is that enough, given the serious threat?
So far, the South African variant of the virus is not spreading rapidly in Britain, with 351 known cases, but there are fears that this could change as lockdown is eased. Given that we understand that both variants have the potential to resist vaccination, 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 process.
The Prime Minister has said in the last 24 hours that we
“can see sadly there is a third wave under way. People in this country should be under no illusions that previous experience has taught us that when a wave hits our friends, it, I’m afraid, washes up on our shores as well.”
So it is even more pressing, given Covid cases in many European countries and the inherent threat that this poses to the UK. Surely the Government’s first priority must be protecting the progress that is being made by the vaccine. This means we need a comprehensive hotel quarantine system without delay.
In addition to concerns about intermingling in transit and people failing to self-isolate on arrival, there are also major concerns about the enforcement of the policy. There has been much discussion regarding the creation of new offences punishable with up to 10 years’ imprisonment and £10,000 fixed penalty notices. As the Bingham Centre notes, the Government’s messaging has been misleading, and misleading statements of the law undermine the rule of law by creating confusion about what the law is. The reality behind these bombastic policy headlines is that there is very little emphasis on compliance and enforcement.
The JCSI has drawn attention to the related Health Protection (Coronavirus, Pre-Departure Testing and Operator Liability) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which introduce requirements for the operators of commercial transport services to ensure that passengers travelling to England from outside the common travel area complete a passenger locator form and possess notification of a negative test result. However, the Committee found that operators are not required to verify that the reference number is real or valid, as real-time verification would impose a significant burden. The report stated that
“legislation is not the place for the expression of hopes and requests”—
it is an obligation.
These regulations are due to expire at the end of the month. Can the Minister confirm that they will be, at the very least, extended to give non-essential travel bans in the UK, and that those coming to the UK must self-isolate or quarantine? We agree that it is too early to say whether there should be any changes of travel advice on 17 May. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the Government will be led by the science and will heed the advice of their advisers to move forward. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, raises several serious issues. She is right to criticise the delay in acting following scientific advice. Sadly, slowness to react has been a feature of this Government’s handling of the pandemic and has probably contributed to the fact that we have almost the highest death rate of any country in the world. The fact that the regulations failed to prevent the Brazilian variant coming in indicates that they are ineffective, unmonitored and not supported.
It is illogical to force travellers coming directly from red-list countries to isolate in a hotel while allowing those from the same countries, via a short stop in a third country, to isolate at home. I have to accept that the only way to ensure that people do isolate is to ensure that they go into suitable accommodation, with proper support. Since the Government have not provided that, the very least that they should be doing is monitoring that those who are supposed to isolate at home are doing so—but microscopically little of that has been done. Why?
There is also the issue of support. No amount of pre-travel testing will get over the fact that many travellers, like others who are asked to self-isolate for other reasons, are not able to do so. The reasons are usually financial but may be caring responsibilities. These Benches have been calling for many months for paying people their wages to enable them to isolate, but our appeals have fallen on deaf ears. To get the benefit of the NHS vaccination programme, we must do more to prevent variants coming in. Will the Government now look carefully at the evidence from other countries that have put all travellers from abroad into isolation accommodation? It worked at the beginning of the pandemic, when passengers from a cruise ship with an outbreak were isolated in vacant nurses’ accommodation on the Wirral. It could work now.
My Lords, if these regulations were intended to pull up the drawbridge and prevent new strains of Covid-19 entering the country, they fail. I support the arguments of the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Walmsley, on the inadequacy, and indeed inconsistencies, of these regulations. For a start, only those coming from red-list countries are forced to self-isolate in government-approved hotels, yet those arrivals inevitably will have travelled on the same flights as people coming from non-red- list countries, as direct flights are cancelled. Bugs do seem to circulate freely on aeroplanes, so can the Minister explain why those who may have been sitting for many hours in a crowded plane with a collection of potential Covid carriers are able to disembark and head straight on to public transport to go and quarantine in a place of their choosing? Indeed, can the Minister explain the logic of allowing any traveller who arrives in this country to travel on public transport, potentially on several different vehicles, before going into quarantine?
For those who do have to go into hotel quarantine, the rules are, rightly, very strict, but are the hotel workers who look after these people being properly protected? What are the risks of them contracting the virus and then spreading it into the community? Many hotel workers have several different jobs. Can the Minister assure us that this is not the case with those working in quarantine hotels?
Finally, perhaps I can ask the Minister a question on quarantine that I put before but which I think time prevented him from answering. If test and trace contacts an individual and instructs them to self-isolate, there can be a hefty fine for disobeying—but test and trace counts as having been contacted for this purpose all the individuals living at the same property as the person instructed to self-isolate. If these people fail to self-isolate, can they be fined?
My Lords, I too regret the amendment to these regulations. Indeed, I regret these regulations, but for a rather different reason from that which has been expressed so far.
With huge respect to the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Wheatcroft, I say that it seems to me that we are trying to catch water in a sieve, and we may make the holes smaller, and we may reduce the number of holes, but water will still come through. Therefore, the Government must make reasonable judgments as to what they can reasonably achieve and what they will fail to achieve. To some degree, as I have said before, I fear that the Government have been bounced into trying to control something that they have not much chance of controlling.
There are exemptions to these rules, including seasonal agricultural workers, hauliers, diplomats, business travellers and people who go on the Tube after having flown. All of them are at risk of bringing in a new variant. It does not take more than one or two people bringing in the variant for it then to spread.
The vaccine programme is the way forward. I congratulate and commend the Government on the success of their extended vaccination programme and their speed in delivering vaccines, so that the vast majority of people whose lives have been at risk of the virus now have a significant degree of protection. Clearly, there may be new variants—but you could say that for ever, and when would this then end?
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech while the House is considering such important matters, and also for the very warm welcome I have received since being introduced.
I am sure that, like many others here, I never expected to be sitting on these red Benches. I grew up in Darlington with my parents and brother, and I have many of the same friends now that I had then—and it is fair to say that Darlington made me who I am. It is the birthplace of the railways and the home of the Northern Echo and pioneering bridge builders. It is an exceptional place and I was proud to represent it in the other place for almost 10 years. It is where my two sons, Ted and Dan, are getting towards the end of their school education, and where they will always be proud to say that they are from. The maternity unit where they were born still has consultant-led births, and Darlington Memorial Hospital still has its accident and emergency service, because of the campaigns that I led. Hundreds of Department for Education jobs remain in Darlington because of the argument I won with the Government. Darlington and the north-east is a great place to live, to grow up and to grow old.
However, like people in too many other towns, the people of Darlington chose to turn away from my party in 2019. The party of the NHS, the minimum wage and the Good Friday agreement was no longer speaking for the priorities of the women and men working in our towns. It was our greatest defeat since 1935. When this happens, a party cannot say, “What is wrong with the electorate?”; we must ask ourselves where we went wrong. I was glad to chair Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign. He is a good leader, with integrity, compassion and experience, and he will make a great Prime Minister. He has built a good team of people, who have no airs and graces and who roll their sleeves up and get stuck in. The Labour Party’s director of communications, Ben Nunn, was at ease knocking on doors in my home town in the freezing cold in 2019. He knows, as all of us in my party know, that we need to listen and to change if we are to win. The challenges of the gig economy, demographic change, the climate crisis and now pandemic disease must be faced by political leaders and the public together.
The Labour Party does not belong to interest groups or factions. It belongs to people like my parents, who worked their whole lives looking after others; like my fellow Labour fighter and husband Nick, who grew up in the Welsh valleys in a family of steelworkers and miners and who is, like me, Labour to his core; but also to people such as my brother Robert and my sister-in-law Alison, who runs her own business in the most difficult circumstances and who is not much interested in politics. It is their party too, and it will win again only when the British people see us as a party that is theirs, and one that will build a better future with them. We must give the Labour Party back to the people of Britain.
The last year has been extraordinary for all of us, but I am looking forward to being an active working Peer, and I am sure that I have much to learn about how this Chamber and its committees work. I am keen to understand what can be achieved through the winning of votes at this end of the Parliamentary Estate. I can promise that I will give it my all, and I look forward to working with all of you in the years to come.
My Lords, I am very proud to follow my noble friend and to offer her the warmest possible welcome to this House. I congratulate her not only on an excellent maiden speech but on the ability to get so much into such a short period. The time constraint has not prevented her presenting a picture of what has happened and what must happen in a way that I would have been proud to have delivered myself. I warmly welcome what she said and I hope that she will forgive me—because she spelled out why—for remarking that this is one of those very rare occasions when I can say that I wish that someone was not on our Benches but was instead down the Corridor. But I am very pleased that she is here and that she will make a continuing contribution, as she has described, to Labour taking its full place once again as the Government of our country.
I am diffident about the short time I have available, because my noble friend Lady Thornton was well ahead of me in understanding the extent of the impact of the virus over 12 months ago. I pay tribute to her for that. I agree entirely about process and procedure, but I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, about where we are going. As she rightly said, we have those delivering to all of us both essential goods and equipment across the country on a daily basis, and by necessity coming in to deliver what otherwise would not be possible. I simply put this on the table: if the vaccine is safe and successful—I believe that it is—and if the upgraded PCR tests are to be as successful as I know they will be, we will need to find new ways of being able to open our economy, to trade again, to keep people in jobs and to ensure that the economy of the future is secured.
The doom and gloom merchants must be very careful in what they say and how they say it in the months ahead because, quite honestly, enforcement is one thing but compliance is another, and we need the people of this country to feel optimism and hope, because the world is going to have to live with this virus—but live with it safely—for a long time to come.
My Lords, there is much to regret in the way that the Government have handled travel issues during this pandemic. First of all there was far too much travel. Now, with these regulations, there are still some really big loopholes. The guidance is unclear. People cannot travel for holidays: that much is clear. But they can travel for business. What actually constitutes business and what checks have been done on that? There have been plenty of reports of so-called influencers travelling for business to places such as Dubai because it is sunny. Does that qualify?
There is another very unequal bit of these regulations. The very wealthy may well have two passports and fly in their private jets. If you follow a flight tracker, you will see that plenty of private jets are still going to places such as Farnborough. What checks are done on them? It would not really affect them hugely if they were fined, so what does the Minister intend to do about that? They are more likely to have been to many countries around the world as well.
I have one last point. Could the Minister give some guidance for those needing to travel for imperative family reasons? That has really been lacking. I am talking about family death or severe illness, for example. If your parent is at death’s door—say with end-of-life cancer— you can hardly quarantine for 14 days before arriving at their bedside. It is obviously different if they have coronavirus. A clear statement is needed on what are imperative and humane reasons to travel in family situations. Could the Minister make one?
My Lords, may I first—unusually—pay tribute to my noble friend the Minister? At the weekend we had what I thought was a rather unpleasant article in the Sunday Times about hereditary Peers. Well, he is without doubt one of the most industrious and diligent Ministers in place and I think he justifies the presence of at least one hereditary Peer in this Chamber. Also, we agree entirely on the need for healthier lifestyles—referred to at the end of the previous business—and tackling obesity, which is closely linked with death rates in this pandemic.
I do not enjoy agreeing with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—she probably does not much enjoy me agreeing with her—but the lack of parliamentary scrutiny and the use of emergency procedures to bring in these draconian measures are frankly not acceptable in a democracy. It is a year since this started and we really should have sorted this out by now. Furthermore, perhaps I might say to my noble friend the Minister—in less congratulatory tones, although it is not necessarily his fault—that there is terrible confusion and inconsistency in these regulations. Can anybody be surprised that the public are confused? I am confused, and I think that Ministers are confused. Nobody is really sure about what country is on what list, and what countries they are allowed to visit.
I certainly regret these regulations, although I am not going to vote for the regret Motion. Furthermore, like my noble friend Lady Altmann, I fear that they are unlikely to make much difference to the spread of the virus.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, has withdrawn so I call the noble Lord, Lord Empey.
My Lords, like other speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, I have concerns about effectiveness. There has been talk of some kind of vaccination passport, but we must remember that the aviation sector is a hugely important business for this country and it is being systematically ruined by these events. The Government have helped with furlough and there has been a modest contribution to airports through rate relief, but the costs involved in restarting and running airlines from the present situation will be a massive undertaking. If we keep our airlines grounded for much longer, while our competitors—particularly China—are able to scoop up perhaps substantial shareholdings in some of them, I fear that the risk to the aviation sector in the United Kingdom will be very considerable.
I understand what the Government are trying to achieve but, given the volume of people who come into this country by necessity to deliver supplies and so on, we have to make sure that what we do is proportionate. I therefore suggest that we pursue the passport issues and simultaneously look at a rescue package for aviation, because that is what it will require.
I also take the opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, on her maiden speech; it was an excellent first speech in this House. We all look forward to meeting and working with her in the future.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who has characteristically made some important points. I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, on an excellent maiden speech. I am sure that the whole House looks forward to many more such speeches from her. I also thank the Minister for his considerable efforts on coronavirus and many other health issues over the last year or so. He has been a truly diligent Minister.
We can all take great comfort from the success of the vaccination programme. It is a tribute to the Government, the NHS and the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have made such a great effort and continue to do so. That said, these regulations cause concern. I share the concerns of many Members who have spoken about the lack of notice, which we should have been able to deal with by now. We have heard routinely how this will be dealt with but we are still seeing these things in the rear-view mirror. Frankly, I cannot see a reason why that should be happening now, and certainly not in relation to these regulations. I do, and will, support them, but there are inconsistencies in the approach. Those coming directly from a red-list country will quarantine in a hotel; those coming indirectly—no matter how short the stopover somewhere else—will not be required to do so. I cannot see the reason for the distinction but I look forward to hearing from the Minister on this.
Meanwhile, we should take great comfort internationally from the scientific response—including, I hope, to the variants—from those who have worked incredibly hard on the vaccine programme and, as I said, from the vaccine rollout in our own country, which has been extraordinarily successful. I would also like to hear from the Minister on the vaccine passport and, indeed, a vaccine certificate to enable people to attend galleries, concerts, football matches and so on. What are the Government doing about that?
My Lords, I offer a very warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, and hope to work with her cross-party. I suspect that we will hear a lot more about Darlington than we ever have before.
I wholeheartedly support the regret Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton; I only wish we could do something stronger. A year into the pandemic, it is only now that the Government have started implementing any kind of rigorous quarantine measures for international travellers. It is a little over a year since Boris Johnson was boasting of shaking hands with everybody and of how Britain would be open for business. How things have changed, yet the Government have been consistent in their failure to restrict the international spread of the virus. First, restrictions were called ineffective and unnecessary, then the Government advised against unnecessary international travel because of the risk of other countries implementing travel restrictions while abroad. After that, of course, it was too late as the virus was already running rampant.
What has most annoyed me is that all this seems to stem from a wider obsession with unfettered international air travel. We have gone in such a short time from air travel being an almost unaffordable luxury to it becoming so embedded in our way of life that we allow air passengers to spread the virus all around the world and trash our climate at the same time. It is about time the Government took a deep look at their obsession with air travel and realised just how much harm it is causing to the planet and to the future of humanity.
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, has withdrawn so I call the noble Lord, Lord Addington.
My Lords, I totally agree with the initial thoughts of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. She described this as a rear-view mirror approach to legislation and that has caught it absolutely squarely. As a fellow person on the front of the Sunday Times, I do not think the Minister should take this personally. He is now representing a Government who have consistently got this wrong. There is confusion throughout the system. We do not know where you should go or what happens when you come back, or what will happen if you go somewhere and break the rules. My noble friend Lady Walmsley described how people are breaking rules because they cannot afford not to do so. This is a degree of confusion. I hope the Minister will take the message back to the Government that we have had enough.
The Motion today is justified—as would be a vote. I hope that the Minister can give us a clear understanding of the Government’s thinking. At the moment it seems to be a series of reactions based on almost nothing. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, got it right when she described a sieve letting water through. If we are to have a sieve, let us block up as many holes as possible or do away with it altogether; I think blocking up the holes is the way forward.
Lastly, on another point that has been made, if we are to have some form of vaccination passport to allow some activities, when will we hear about it? Many activities, including certain types of sport, will depend on it. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
My Lords, I add my welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and I enjoyed her speech. We know that our failure to secure our borders at the start of this pandemic led to considerable numbers of tourists coming back from their skiing holidays—in Italy in particular but also elsewhere—and not isolating. Those tourists, I would say, substantially led to the soaring Covid numbers a year ago. We now have a list of 33 countries on the red-list travel ban, which reads a bit like a list of developing nations. Again, surely the greatest risk is from people returning from our neighbouring countries in Europe such as France and Germany, where, as I understand it, the South African variant is taking hold. Are the Government urgently considering including our European neighbours on the red list to avoid repeating our mistakes of a year ago or, indeed, going rather further as the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, and others have suggested? It seems to me that, if we want to lead a more normal life through the summer and onwards, securing our borders much more effectively than this regulation will do is going to be absolutely critical. I look forward to the Minister’s response to that point.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, on her maiden speech and I wish her well for her future in the House.
I have considerable sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, over the use of the urgent powers procedures in relation to these regulations. However, I want to deal with some substantive issues around the regulations and the common travel area. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out clearly how international visitors from high-risk countries are monitored after crossing from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland and then into England or other parts of the UK, because at present there is a major loophole.
There has been an ongoing problem with getting the necessary information and data from the Irish Republic authorities. The Northern Ireland Executive and our local Health Minister have been calling for that information to be shared from passenger locator forms in the Irish Republic, with little or no progress so far. It is imperative that the Dublin Government act on this, otherwise there is a massive problem. They should have done so months ago and we were assured that that would happen, but it has not yet occurred.
Passenger locator form information needs to be shared between the Irish Republic and the UK authorities, especially in Northern Ireland. That issue has been raised bilaterally, as I have said, but it needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency. Arguments have been made concerning problems with data sharing and that legislation may be needed, but we cannot afford to waste any more time, given the urgency of the problems concerning the spread of Covid through international travel.
Can we have a collaborative approach? Will the Minister urge information-sharing with the Irish Republic and vice versa? Can he speak to colleagues in government to ensure that support is given to the Northern Ireland Executive in trying to extract this vital information? Information and data are shared fairly regularly on a whole host of issues to do with security and immigration for dealing with the common travel area, and it needs to happen in relation to Covid. It really is a matter of life and death.
My Lords, I echo the congratulations to my noble friend Lady Chapman on her excellent maiden speech. I agree that my party has hard lessons to learn.
I am going to have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, when it comes to the issue of parliamentary scrutiny. That is twice that we have agreed with each other in the last three weeks, which is deeply worrying.
I want to reflect on the trenchant comments of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. The SI that we are debating today has already been updated, as I understand it, by the amending Covid travel regulations Nos. 8 and 9. The Explanatory Memorandum provided with regulations No. 8, which we have yet to debate, was particularly poor, says the committee, and the DfT had to replace it immediately. As the committee says, when instruments are brought into effect immediately, it is even more important that their intent and effect be made clear to both Parliament and the public.
One would have thought that the lesson would have been learned but, according to the scrutiny committee, it has not. Regarding regulations No. 9, which we anticipate debating fairly shortly, it says:
“The Explanatory Memorandum was particularly thin … and the supplementary information provided remained opaque.”
The committee draws those regulations to the special attention of the House on the grounds that
“the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the instrument’s policy objective and intended implementation.”
I am of course aware of the huge pressure on Ministers and their officials at the moment, and I support my noble friend in wanting a quicker and tougher approach to travel rules and quarantine. However—and this is the point that the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, was making—I also accept that we are putting severe restrictions on people’s personal liberties, and that is something that cannot be swept away. It is unacceptable if departments cannot even provide clear statements in Explanatory Memorandums of what the regulations are about.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, on her maiden speech. We worked together in the other place when we were Members there, so I look forward to working with her in this House.
I support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. The regulations should have been laid earlier, despite the warning from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on 21 January that:
“Reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants”
of Covid-19. Why was this the case? Why are we dealing with this legislation in retrospect? In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has referred to the subsequent regulations, which we will no doubt debate in future weeks.
There is a view that the Government failed to prevent the Brazilian strain of Covid-19 entering the UK, that the policy applies only to the 33 red-list countries and that 99% of passengers arriving in the UK are therefore exempt. So, could the Minister indicate what action the Government will take to ensure comprehensive hotel quarantine for all UK arrivals in order to prevent the importation of new variants of Covid-19? Is there not an onus of legal responsibility on the Government to ensure the public health protection of all our citizens? In asking that question, I do commend the Government on the rollout of the vaccination programme.
There is also a view that under these new regulations, a passenger could avoid their managed quarantine by separating the legs of their journey. Is there not a case for the Government to review their hotel quarantine policy to make it fit for purpose?
The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia.
My Lords, this SI has been prepared by the DHSC. It amends the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) Regulations in order to introduce a new system. First, it addresses quarantine for travellers who have been in one of the designated registered countries that pose a high risk to the UK of the importation of a variant of concern in the 10 days prior to arrival in England. Secondly, it will make mandatory testing for all travellers who have been outside the common travel area in the 10 days prior to travelling to England. These measures are designed to reduce the public health risk caused by the spread from international travellers of a severe respiratory syndrome, coronavirus, which causes the disease Covid-19, particularly with respect to the possibility of a variant of concern being imported to the UK. The regulations came into force on 15 February 2021. This instrument applies in England and Wales.
That is the correct way to deal with the variants that have emerged from South Africa and other countries. We all must appreciate the speed with which the Government have enacted these regulations.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, has already mentioned the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I have served on that committee for about two years now. It is one of the less well-known workhorses of the parliamentary scrutiny system. It is very technical in nature and staffed by a very effective and thorough legal team. It is always a busy committee but recent years have been particularly active, with the continued volume of EU exit SIs and those, such as the measure today, relating to the pandemic. When you strip away all the legal technicalities, at root the committee is concerned to see that the law is correctly applied and that agreed parliamentary procedure is adhered to.
This SI and others like it are a very good example of the kind of issues that the committee highlights because it is rather exercised by them. In this case, “variant of concern” and “variant under investigation” are used but with no definition or meaning. The department has said that they do not need to be defined here because they have a commonly understood meaning in the scientific and health community. In practice, that may be true but there is an important point here: the law should be unambiguous and understandable to everyone. There are other examples where the department has included a definition, so it is not even being consistent.
Secondly, without going into the detail of our report there are drafting errors, which the department acknowledges. Three of them have had to be corrected by a subsequent instrument and the fourth, it says, will be. This is not a criticism of the department—drafting at pace is challenging—but it highlights how hard it is to keep track of exactly what Parliament is passing.
The committee has concerns about many trends and will shortly produce a special report which highlights them. The conflation of statute and guidance has exercised the committee and other noble Lords. This, compounded with the practice of government announcements and their attendant publicity, followed by regulation that does not match, is a major concern.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, has withdrawn so I call the next speaker: the noble Lord, Lord Naseby.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend on the Front Bench—my goodness, he has broad shoulders—and I warmly support the action he is taking and this SI. I have a couple of questions and concerns.
The first is about the designated entry points. It is obviously easy to do this with flights that come in direct but what about other routes? I have in mind Scotland; I am not sure what is happening there. It is pretty easy to fly into Edinburgh or Glasgow and get across the border. My noble friend from Northern Ireland raised the point that there is not really a border between north and south there. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, raised a question about Europe, particularly the areas that are entering the third version of the pandemic. Are they on the red list or not? Secondly, why is it taking quite so long to process people at London airports? The traffic levels are about 25% of normal, yet I was told by somebody last week that it is taking five to seven hours to be processed. There is much talk that they are understaffed.
On paragraph 6.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum, is the passenger locator form working smoothly now? I am not clear about UK nationals coming back from the red zone. Can they isolate at home? I congratulate my noble friend: having had to isolate and caught Covid, I was checked up on by the trace people and by the local authority.
I see that the expiry date for these provisions in 8 June. If they have to be renewed, when will that be?
Finally, I have a question about asylum seekers coming through the red zone. They will not have the resources to pay for a hotel if they are put in one, so how will they be handled? Absolutely finally, the vaccine passport is vital.
My Lords, I send the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, my warmest congratulations. She lends weight and strengthens the unacceptably low number of women in this House. I welcome her and look forward to working with her.
I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Hunt about the implementation of these regulations. The pandemic has touched all our lives in every way, with so many losing their loved ones and their livelihood. We as citizens have sacrificed many civil liberties in accepting these regulations and others in our country, where we have professed freedom. None of the progress that we have achieved so far in reducing the infection through the vaccination programme should be jeopardised in easing further lockdowns, and our population should be protected in decision-making about travel.
Travel is more than family time, togetherness and pleasure; it is also about human reasons, as suggested earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. It is also critical to our businesses in transiting to building a post-Covid world. Safe travel is part of making sure that stability is attainable but it must be measured and phased, given what the scientists have repeatedly indicated: it requires five to six weeks after lowering infections for us to know what is actually going on, and to plan ahead to reflect this when easing a lockdown.
There should be clarity in the messaging about next summer; the public deserve that. Last night I heard through the grapevine that the Brazilian variant may have been taken to Bangladesh by individuals who have travelled from our shores. Can the Minister assure the House that those who are quarantined are being monitored by our test and track system?
My Lords, I will be incredibly brief. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Chapman on her maiden speech. The Minister has been asked a lot of questions about these issues, now and previously, so I assume that statistics are being collected. How many unoccupied young people have arrived from red-list countries since the imposition of the regulations? How many private aircraft have arrived from red-list countries? I am not clear whether private aircraft can use all five airports or are restricted to one. What statistics are being kept on this? It has been alluded to as though it is not a problem.
If people come in from red-list countries via indirect means, presumably there are some statistics on that. The Explanatory Memorandum is massive, which shows the issue we are dealing with here. I have some sympathy with the Minister in that respect, I might add. But just how many people are trying to circumvent the system by coming via indirect countries? Presumably these statistics are being collected because we will need that evidence when we look at further regulations, which are inevitably bound to arise.
My Lords, from these Benches I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, on her maiden speech and welcome her to this House. Once again, we are debating these measures, which have a significant impact on the liberty of individuals, a full five weeks after they came into effect. In your Lordships’ House, we have been challenging the Minister and his predecessor about enhanced passenger testing, travel arrangements and hotel quarantine consistently since January last year. Well over a year on into this pandemic, the Government can no longer credibly cite a “public health emergency” for lack of scrutiny. This is not a surprise or an emergency, and from these Benches we too ask why a negative instrument has been used.
Ministers should look to other countries around the world for examples of what we should be doing regarding international travel, testing and quarantine. Other island nations have had great success with border controls, and we must learn from their successes. In Taiwan, a country I know is close to the heart of the Minister, they have “hot taxis” which are used only to take international arrivals to their place of quarantine. The drivers are paid a full day’s wage even if they have no passengers, so there is no incentive for them to take other clients. Other support includes calling people every day to check they are okay and do not need medication or other urgent supplies, and to use their phones as an electronic tag to ensure that they do not leave the facility or their home. These are only some of a series of effective safety and support measures that Taiwan uses to ensure exceptionally strong quarantine compliance. In the UK, however, there is evidence of woefully poor checks on those quarantining.
In New Zealand, everyone must obtain a travel voucher which allows access to a state-run isolation facility, and where you go depends on your symptoms and test results. The evidence from countries such as Taiwan and New Zealand is clear; the UK Government’s policy is not. We need to remember that only a few weeks ago Public Health England was scrambling to try to trace an unknown individual who had brought the Brazilian variant into this country. This was after these regulations came into effect. It is evident that, even with the regulations, there are huge gaps in the system.
Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said at the time that the team trying to track down the mystery person included those from laboratories, logistics and data analytics and that they all had virtually no information to go on. Any effective system needs to know exactly who is coming into the country, where they are isolating and what their test status is.
It beggars belief that there was no link between testing and people quarantining, and worse, no system to ensure that anyone taking a test could be tracked back to where the tests were sent. We cannot have situations where public health officials are trying to track down cases that should be known with very little information to go on. Can the Minister assure your Lordships’ House that both these loopholes are now closed?
It is inevitable that these restrictions significantly impact on people’s liberties. At the moment, we have the worst of both worlds: some restrictions on liberties, but also far too many half-measures that see international arrivals jumping on to public transport, or worse, coming via another country to hide that they have come from a red list country—while many others have to pay thousands for quarantine hotels. Such a chaotic system undermines public trust and makes people wonder what they are making their sacrifices for. Will the Government put clarity and consistency at the heart of further reforms for travel restrictions and quarantine? On 21 January this year, SAGE advised the Government:
“No intervention, other than a complete, pre-emptive closure of borders, or the mandatory quarantine of all visitors upon arrival in designated facilities, irrespective of testing history, can get close to fully prevent the importation of cases or new variants”.
When will the Government implement this unequivocal advice in full?
Finally, when we talk about quarantine, we must always think about what might motivate individuals to break that quarantine. We know that the £10,000 fine is a strong deterrent. We also know that most people want to do the right thing. Not for the first, or even the second time, I ask the Minister: how are the Government supporting people in quarantine? How are they dealing with exceptional circumstances, such as allowing individuals to break quarantine to visit dying relatives, as set out by my noble friend Lady Miller? Can quarantining people get supplies, especially medication, delivered to them? Is it true that people with coeliac disease are not permitted to travel into the UK at the moment because quarantine hotels say they cannot cater for gluten-free people?
We all know border controls are important due to the threat of new variants. We cannot allow the hard efforts of our vaccination programme to be undermined by importing vaccine-resistant variants. This means working with scientists, medical professionals and Governments across the globe to ensure that research and information can be shared in as collaborative a way as possible to combat this global crisis. Above all, we must have effective travel restrictions and quarantine so that neither people nor the virus can get round them.
I start by saying a profound thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for this regret Motion. If is not often a Minister thanks the Opposition for a regret Motion, but I completely recognise that this is one of the top questions of the moment. I value the opportunity to air these important issues and to try to answer some of the probing and challenging questions asked in this debate.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, have called for clarity. I am afraid that clarity is the one thing I cannot bring noble Lords in this instance because there are so many unknowns about the virus itself. I am not trying to hide behind the vagaries of the virus, but it is an unavoidable truth that we do not know about the body’s response to the new variants that have emerged.
We do not know whether the Manaus or South African variants of concern will somehow evade and escape the AstraZeneca, Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and dramatically increase the severity of disease, hospitalisation and death rates in those who have been vaccinated. A small change in some of those percentages can make a dramatic difference to the impact of the disease on this country and other countries.
Therefore, while we wait for the evidence to become clearer and more conclusive, we have to balance. On the one hand, there is the very natural, reasonable and pragmatic instinct to pull up the drawbridge and use our island status to protect ourselves from the unknown, to ape the precedent set by Singapore, Iceland, New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan—other island states that have extremely strict green zone measures in place to keep out travellers. On the other hand, there is accommodating the very reasonable, natural and human desire of the British public and those who live overseas to travel in and out of the country. It is a matter of national identity, economic value and diplomatic heft that we keep our borders open during this period.
Under these circumstances, in a difficult, unknown situation, we have sought to put in the most thoughtful and balanced system possible. We have embraced a 21st-century approach to a 21st-century pandemic. That means we have used technology, testing and all the data systems available to us to ensure that we know exactly who is coming in and going out of the country. We are using that investment to protect the massive national project of the vaccine.
From a standing start, we have created an incredibly complex managed quarantine system that tracks everyone coming into the country, identifies two tests for them at two and eight days, double-tests any positives against genomic sequencing, and immediately applies rigorous tracing protocols to all those who may have a variant of concern.
The statistics speak for themselves; it has been enormously successful. Unlike other countries, where the South African variant, for instance, has been transmitted in the community, in the UK we have kept a lid on the Brazilian and South African variants. I speak with hope and prayers that that long continues.
The amount of travel coming into the country is now 5% of what it was in normal times. For those who say we are not doing enough, I remind them that we have taken an absolutely draconian approach to travel. For those who say that the arrangements are not clear, as my noble friend Lord Robathan did, I will be honest—I think the rules are very clear: it is illegal to travel abroad for leisure purposes. We even have a declaration form on international travel to ensure that people travel abroad only for permitted purposes. It could not be clearer.
It is possible that we will have to go further. We are watching with enormous sadness our European neighbours rejecting the vaccine policy. They are not embracing the opportunity a vaccine provides for driving down infection rates and protecting their populations. I do not know how that will play out. It is certainly above my pay grade to speculate. But we are all aware of the possibility that we will have to red-list all our European neighbours.
That would be done with huge regret because we are a trading nation, we work in partnership with other countries and we depend on other countries for essential supplies—not only medicines but food and others. Although we could put a haulier programme in place to protect our trade routes, it would be an enormous diplomatic blow and a decision that we would take with huge regret.
That is the reason for the system that we have in place at the moment. We have 35 red-listed countries, and we look at the statistics on the spread of variants of concern extremely closely indeed. We have some of the country’s best analysts working through all sorts of intelligence routes to understand exactly what is going on in the world, and we have mobilised the largest genomic sequencing resources in the world, not only to understand what the prevalence is of VOCs in this country but to look at samples from all around the world. We are absolutely on the balls of our feet, should the situation change. That practical approach entirely suits the style of this country and the challenge that we face. The Prime Minister has made it crystal clear that, should the circumstances change, for the worse or the better, we will either upgrade or downgrade those arrangements.
A number of Peers have referred to the circumstances in which these regulations were put in place. I have been at the Dispatch Box enough times over the last year to understand the difference between a pressing situation and one that is not. I reassure noble Lords that these regulations were brought on to the statute book at pace because we had absolutely no choice. I remind those whose memories are short that it was only 12 weeks ago that the threat of the Kent variant became so apparent that we had to bring in new lockdown measures on 14 December. It is only relatively recently that we have understood more fully the potential threat to the vaccine of the Manaus and South African variants. In fact, in both cases, the evidence either way is not yet conclusive.
We are dealing with a fast-changing situation, and we have extremely worrying epidemiological updates from South America that suggest that there may be other variants out there that we have not yet sequenced. As such, we brought in these regulations at pace, with regret that they were brought in late. I reassure noble Lords that we would not have done it otherwise.
I give major thanks to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments for its report into the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations 2021. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Scott—whose remarks were extremely well made and very generously made, under the circumstances—that the drafting errors referred to in paragraph 7.3 of the report have all subsequently been corrected. The use of the term “variant of concern” in the regulations is being reviewed as a matter of priority.
To the noble Lord, Lord Empey, I say that we have given £7 billion of government support to the air transport sector, but we completely appreciate the pressure that it is under. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, that we absolutely have a collaborative approach with the Irish Government; there are no issues of principle here, and we have a pragmatic approach to sharing data.
I draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, my noble friend Lord Bourne and others who asked about the passport to the Cabinet Office reviews of certification. There is one on major events, one on social care and healthcare, and one on international travel, with the DfT. They are all looking to report very soon.
There was unanimous support across the Chamber with regard to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, who spoke so warmly and generously, and she is clearly going to be a very benign and generous addition to these Benches. We really appreciate the way in which she gave her maiden speech. She spoke particularly kindly of Darlington. I note that the Treasury has made a massive commitment to move Treasury North there, which I hope the noble Baroness welcomes. I hope that she will enjoy the opportunity to spend more time with the Chancellor in the months and years to come.
I repeat my sincere gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for bringing this regret Motion; it is a major and important issue, and one that we will debate again in the future because the issues that we are tackling this afternoon will not go away any time soon. I reassure all noble Lords that we take this matter extremely seriously indeed, and we are absolutely doing our best.
I am assuming that the Minister is asking me to withdraw my Motion, albeit in a very kind way. I first say how much I enjoyed my noble friend’s maiden speech and how pleased I am to see her here, even if she cannot be down the other end of the corridor.
Given the support of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, I cannot decide whether my noble friend Lord Hunt and I are more or less concerned, but I am always happy to accept support from wherever it comes. I am grateful—mostly—for all the contributions that noble Lords have made, and I thank the Minister for answering the questions with such detail and diligence. I thank my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Blunkett, who raised important and relevant questions, and pointed to the inconsistencies.
I am of course going to withdraw this regret Motion, but I need to put the Minister on notice. Statutory instruments No. 8, No. 9 and No. 10 are already down, and I think that we can expect No. 11 by the end of this week. I may not be quite so generous next time, because the only way that we can discuss these SIs is if someone in this House puts down a regret or take-note Motion. I am perfectly happy to accept that responsibility, but I might not be quite so generous as to withdraw it. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
We will move straight on to the next business, with a few minutes’ break to allow people to leave and arrive.