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Covid-19: Aligning UK and Foreign Entry and Return Requirements

Volume 814: debated on Monday 19 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the governments of countries with (1) low levels of COVID-19 infections, and (2) a traditionally high number of visitors from the United Kingdom, to seek to align the requirements for (a) vaccination, and (b) testing on entry and return.

I hope for the last time virtually, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my declaration on the register.

My Lords, the Government are working with a range of international partners to ensure a safe return to international travel while managing public health risks. We are taking a phased approach to amending requirements for passengers fully vaccinated through the UK programme and exploring plans to remove quarantine for non-UK residents arriving from amber countries from later this summer. The purpose of our inbound travel—[Inaudible]—while ensuring that our route out of the international travel restrictions is sustainable.

My Lords, at home and abroad, freedom day is in danger of turning into confusion day. Surely people should not be punished in any way for wanting, for business or for pleasure, to leave and return to our country freely. Clarity, consistency and some sort of understanding of the impact on our foreign relations would surely not only help but save our aviation and travel industry. Would the Minister agree that discussion with our friends could have led to an understanding of the constitution of the French Fifth Republic and avoided the need to invent amber-plus, thereby enabling us to be able to treat the French as they would treat us, given that our infection levels are pretty much at amber-plus?

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord that we should be utterly committed to the route to sustainable, open borders. However, we cannot hide from the threat of infection from abroad. That infection comes from higher rates from abroad—the positivity rates of some countries have been in the high teens—but also the threat of variants of concern, particularly the vaccine-evading beta variant, which is highly prevalent in some countries, including, increasingly, France.

My Lords, the lack of co-ordination of regulations and announcements between the four Governments of the United Kingdom has been one of the worst examples of incompetence throughout these past 16 months. That is now particularly true in relation to international travel. Why is it impossible for these four Governments to agree one set of rules for people travelling in and out of the United Kingdom? What will the Government do to try to improve the situation, even if it cannot be resolved for the summer-?

My Lords, I am not sure whether I agree with the premise of the question. I pay tribute to the collaborative spirit in which the four nations have worked together. I have regular meetings with my counterparties—in fact I have one this afternoon—in order to talk about exactly this sort of co-ordination. The answer to the noble Lord’s question is, in the framing of the question, that it is not in my or the Government’s gift to manage this on our own; we depend on collaboration in order to have co-ordination.

My Lords, the director-general of the International Air Transport Association has said that the Government now have

“no coherent policy on international travel.”

To prove him wrong, can the Minister state what data the Government are using to determine the positivity rate for the beta variant on mainland France, and what that data shows for the cases of the beta variant on mainland France?

My Lords, the noble Lord’s question has behind it a genuine dilemma. The amount of genomic sequencing in countries around the world is limited. No other country has the degree of genomic sequencing that we have here in the UK, and we do not have perfect vision of what variants of concern are present in other countries, including even in France. We work very closely with Governments, including that of France, to have access to whatever data they have—but, to an extent, we are operating with imperfect data.

My Lords, clearly, as international travel restrictions ease, co-ordination of travel rules will become imperative. In that regard, will the Minister impress on colleagues in government the good sense of Britain leading the way internationally in ensuring that vaccination records are carried in passports, to demonstrate the vaccine histories of those travelling? This will speed checks, make them secure and promote an international approach to vaccine-secure travel.

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that co-ordination of vaccine certification is a massive priority. We are working extremely closely, particularly with our close friends in America and the EU, to have mutual recognition of certification. Whether that certification is tied to the passport is up to the tastes of local countries. In the UK we are putting certification in the NHS app, and it feels right that that should be contained and limited to health records rather than national identity documents. However, each country will have its own approach.

My Lords, the Minister has previously promised to look at the cost of tests for travel purposes, yet the very wide variation in price from the 402 providers the Government list on their website—most of them well over £100 per test—is surely quite confusing for the public when, essentially, we are talking about the same product, even if the details of provision may vary, and critically so. Will the Government look at this, and indeed at the costs themselves?

My Lords, I do look at the costs and have regular meetings with the team to look at this. I pay tribute both to officials and to the industry for standing up an enormous number of tests. I believe that, between 30 June and 7 July, 182,137 tests of people quarantining at home were registered and processed, and 18,946 by those who manage quarantine. That is an enormous number and pays tribute to the industry. A variety of costs reflects a variety of different services and in itself is not a problem—but we are driving the costs down and the industry is responding accordingly.

My Lords, regrettably, we see the Covid border restrictions descend into further chaos with the last-minute U-turn on self-isolation requirements for fully vaccinated people returning from France. Once again, we see the travel industry and the British people paying the price. Will the Minister agree to publish the full data behind the traffic light system, and could he give his views on the stance of the World Health Organization, which has reaffirmed that it believes that proof of vaccination should not be required for international travel?

My Lords, we are working with our partners to try to open up borders. There is a growing consensus that vaccination is an important component in opening up borders, and the Government generally support that. The virus itself chops and changes; we have to adapt in response to the growth of variants. I cannot promise that we will not act promptly and emphatically when the health of the nation is threatened.

What advice can the Minister give to those who wish to travel to or from South Africa, or any other African countries which are popular with tourists?

My Lords, as I mentioned earlier, we take the threat of the vaccine-evading beta variant extremely seriously indeed, therefore we are extremely cautious about travel to areas with a high prevalence of that variant.

My noble friend just stated in a previous answer that that Her Majesty’s Government aim to recognise the certificates of those who have been double vaccinated in other countries, notably the US and the EU. Surely, if we want other countries to recognise our own NHS certificates, it should be reciprocal. Can he give me any idea when this might happen?

[Inaudible]—are engaging with a range of international partners, including the EU and the US, on mutual recognition. Ministers have agreed to begin the formal process of reaching a technical agreement with the EU on mutual recognition of vaccine certificates. This would allow the digital verification of vaccine certificates between the UK and the EU. We believe that this process could be complete within a month, pending the Commission’s acceptance of our application.

My Lords, have the discussions with these countries involved the question of herd immunity, bearing in mind that countries with low levels of vaccination which have closed their borders will have fewer Covid infections? That could result in less herd immunity in the long term in countries such as New Zealand and Australia, which have closed their borders.

The current data suggests that the vaccine certificate is the most emphatic indicator of reduced infection and therefore transmission. That is the basis on which we are currently looking to try to open the borders. The noble Lord makes the good point that in countries that have had high infection rates some form of antibody recognition might be possible—but that is not the route that we are looking at at the moment.