Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 19 July.
“After a hugely challenging 16 months for the aviation industry, I am delighted that new rules allowing fully vaccinated people to travel to nearly all amber list countries, without isolating upon return, came into effect this morning, although people will still need to comply with necessary testing requirements. This coincides with a change in our advice, meaning that the do-not-travel rules for amber countries have now been relaxed, which will be a huge boost to our aviation and travel sectors ahead of the vital summer season.
Also from today, children under the age of 18 will not have to self-isolate when returning to England, making family reunions and holidays far more accessible. Children aged four and under will continue to be exempt from any travel testing, while children aged five to 10 will only need to do a day two PCR. Eleven to 18 year-olds will need to take both a pre-departure test and a day two PCR, as is the case for arrivals from green list countries.
I must reiterate that public health remains our priority, and with our measures on international travel we are safeguarding the gains made by our successful domestic vaccine programme. That is why, on Friday, the Government took the decision to exempt France from the new arrangements for fully vaccinated people returning to England. This decision was taken after concerns were raised by the Joint Biosecurity Centre over the persistent presence of cases in France of the beta variant, which was first identified in South Africa. I understand that the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my honourable friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), will be able to answer questions on the data and the concerns raised by the JBC in a Statement shortly.
I can also confirm to the House that, since 4 am this morning, there have been changes to the countries in the traffic-light system. Bulgaria, Croatia, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been added to the Government’s green list; Croatia and Taiwan have also been added to the green watchlist, signalling to passengers that these countries are potentially at risk of moving from green to amber at short notice should swift action be required to protect public health in England.
The Balearic islands and the British Virgin Islands have been added to the amber list and, unfortunately, Cuba, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sierra Leone have been added to the red list.
We keep all these measures under constant review to ensure that they remain necessary and proportionate. The system we have designed is adaptable to the evolving epidemiological picture, and the UK Government are prepared to take action at any time to protect public health.”
My Lords, it is not possible to travel to France without the need for quarantine and all the costs and upheaval that involves, as France, following a sudden decision, is now in a separate subcategory of amber-list countries. As one Conservative MP put it when this UQ was discussed in the Commons,
“public confidence in going abroad is now in a ditch”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/7/21; col. 679.]
Another Conservative MP said,
“the further restrictions for France stretch both the credibility of the system and the patience of the travel industry. The whole industry … continues to watch as its reserves are dried up”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/7/21; col. 685.]
The travel industry was promised a rescue deal, which has never materialised. When do the Government intend to give this important industry the support that it needs, as we have called for, and as the shadow Secretary of State demanded again in the Commons on Monday, to which there was no response from the Minister?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talks about the decision that we had to make on France, which of course was not made lightly. We have in place a good traffic-light system which enables us to categorise countries according to risk and, therefore, travel can happen accordingly. However, we have also reduced requirements for people who have had double vaccinations in order to travel to amber countries. That is of great benefit to the travel companies and I am sure that they will take advantage of that opportunity.
Can the Minister explain why the Government, with a fanfare of publicity, moved France on to the amber list while at the same time issuing instructions that from Monday, Border Force officers no longer have to verify that new arrivals from green-list and amber-list countries have negative Covid tests or other legally required paperwork? Can the Minister explain why the decision to remove these checks was made? Was it due to a lack of staff and, if so, why have the Government not provided enough Border Force staff to perform checks at a predictably busy time of year?
My Lords, all the decisions that this Government make are on the basis of risk—risk to the country as a whole from a public health perspective and risks to travellers who choose to go abroad where they are able to. It is not the case that checks were dropped because of reduction in demand. However, we need to keep the travelling public as risk-free as possible. That is a great benefit to citizens, but also to the travel industry.
My Lords, what are the prospects and timing of agreeing a deal with the United States that would allow quarantine to cease for vaccinated individuals from both countries? This is our largest market, with a high rate of vaccination, so “risk”, in the words of my noble friend, is low. And what is the answer for Japan? I should declare an interest, as I need to travel there as chair of Crown Agents.
Japan will be taken under consideration as we review the traffic lights system going forward. Transatlantic travel is hugely important for both the US and the UK, and as announced by the Secretary of State for Transport on 8 July, we are confident that vaccines will play an important role in normalising travel, when it is appropriate. There is a UK-US expert working group specifically driving this work forward.
My Lords, the queues at arrivals at our airports are now completely unacceptable. They are two hours or more, as I have experienced recently. Why do the Government not do two things? First, they could get airlines to check documentation before passengers board planes to the UK. Secondly, with universities having closed, they could employ university students, or recent graduates, train them up in a day or two and get them to check Covid documents at arrivals at the airports, with one or two Border Force agents supporting and supervising them, and then let the passengers through to the e-gates and to the immigration officers to do the passport checks. These two moves would remove the congestion and queues in one swoop.
I thank the noble Lord for his suggestions, and I will ensure that my colleagues at the Home Office listen to them as well. We have always been very clear that wait times at the border may be extended due to biosecurity checks being carried out. These are essential to protect the public and the success of our vaccination programme. Passengers have a key role to play in this, as to a certain extent do airlines, because they do some checking before passengers board aircraft. The noble Lord mentioned e-gates. Automation is also really important. We have been able to upgrade the e-gates to speed passengers through the airport.
I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register of interests. The travel industry is at present on its knees. Regular changes in government policy, as well as changes in the government policy on the admittance of British businesspeople and holidaymakers from other countries, are making the situation considerably worse. Could the Minister tell us what consultations, if any, have been held with the Treasury about some sector-specific assistance to this vital industry?
My Lords, we believe that by the end of September 2021 the air transport sector, for example, will have benefited from around £7 billion worth of government support since the start of the pandemic. Decisions around the sector support will of course ultimately be a matter for the Chancellor based on the evidence that we have been able to provide. Of course, we have regular conversations with our colleagues at the Treasury, but also with industry. We are listening very carefully to the sector.
My Lords, perhaps one of the more confusing issues surrounding the traffic lights system is not knowing on what basis the grading is made. Chile, for example, has falling infection rates and is at least on a par with our high vaccination rates here, yet it remains red. Could my noble friend give us some idea as to how exactly these grades are calculated and whether she is aware of any red countries likely to move to amber in the foreseeable future?
I am unable to provide any insight to my noble friend as to what might happen in the future in terms of countries moving from one group to the next, but we look at a range of factors when making these decisions. Of course, we are reliant on the joint biosecurity centre for producing a risk assessment of the countries and territories. The factors that the JBC risk assessment considers are very varied. They include the genomic surveillance capability within the nation, the Covid-19 transmission risk and the transmission risk of variants of concern. A range of measures is incorporated into reaching these decisions.
My Lords, I would like to pick up on the point on France raised by my noble friend Lord Rosser. The Government’s decision on Friday to change quarantine rules on return from France has bewildered and angered not just the travel industry but the hundreds of thousands of UK citizens gong to France on holiday or for work. Can the Minister tell the House when this decision will be reviewed—and hopefully reversed—given the small number of beta variant cases in mainland France, as opposed to La Réunion, so that people can get on with their jobs when they return without self-isolating first.
I am happy to provide some more information to the noble Baroness. GISAID data suggests that the beta variant accounts for around 5% of cases in France, with data earlier in the month suggesting it could be as high as 9%. This data does not include La Réunion. It includes Corsica, which is included in the quarantine policy, and Monaco. This data for the beta variant compares to similar data from Spain and Greece of less than 1%, so that it why we are concerned about France. It has nothing to do with La Réunion. That is why we took that decision. I cannot say at this time when that process will come under review. Of course, we would love to have people travelling to France again, but it was the right decision taken on the information available.
My Lords, many people travelling from Belfast to international destinations will initially fly to London or Manchester before continuing their journey on to their final destination. Given that the decisions made by the United Kingdom Government for travellers in England will therefore also apply to large numbers of travellers from Northern Ireland, what discussions is the Minister, or her officials, having with her counterparts in Belfast to ensure that changes to international travel rules agreed in London are properly conveyed to holidaymakers departing from Northern Ireland?
We have ongoing conversations with all the devolved Administrations, because this is so important. I recognise the noble Lord’s point: if you are travelling to Northern Ireland, chances are you may be coming through one of the large airports in England. It is very important, but we must recognise that health policy is devolved. However, we have every intention of working as closely as possible with the devolved nations and ensuring that our interventions are as aligned as possible.
The time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baronesses who could not be called.