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Covid-19: UK Arrivals

Volume 816: debated on Tuesday 16 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why international students and others who have been fully vaccinated and are not required to self-isolate on arrival in the United Kingdom subsequently have to self-isolate if a close contact contracts COVID-19; and what plans they have to change this policy.

Our current system for validating the vaccination status of close contacts relies on checking against records in the NHS national immunisation management system. We do not have access to equivalent records for those vaccinated overseas. We recognise the pressing need to resolve this issue as soon as possible and are urgently exploring a number of different options to extend the existing exemptions to contacts who have been vaccinated overseas. I hope to be in a position very shortly to brief the House on a proposed solution.

My Lords, I will welcome that solution when it comes. The Minister talks of urgency but we have been waiting since the beginning of September for a resolution to a problem that I believe is rather small but which clearly disadvantages international students. To me, it feels slightly xenophobic and as though to date the Government have been intransigent. I know that Public Health England agrees that the policy is not logical in any sense or form, so why do international students have to self-isolate for 10 days when our own students from the UK do not? This disadvantages the international students and puts people off coming to this country. Also, how can international students who have had non-MHRA-approved vaccines be immunised in the UK in order to get a Covid pass, should that be necessary in the not too distant future, as it is in some other parts of the UK?

As someone whose family comes from outside the EU, who has taught in universities and who recognises the great asset that there is and the great advantages that there are in being open to the world, and global Britain, I share the noble Baroness’s frustration. Yes, we have left the EU, which is very much a project of white privilege, and moved to a more global outlook. It is really important that we now focus on the world generally. The issue is quite technical at the moment. One of the things needed for the test and trace system to work is that you need access to the underlying data and verification. We are looking at a number of different options for how to achieve that.

As the Minister has said, our universities have long been a welcoming and inspiring academic hub for international students but stories such as the ones that we have heard—along with, I am afraid, the attack on freedom of speech at the LSE and the shameful treatment of Professor Stock, which we will come to shortly—added to Covid and online teaching, to say nothing of the Brexit fallout, which means that EU schools can no longer use group passports, all question our ability to attract youngsters from across the globe. What are the Government doing to re-establish our reputation in this sector?

The noble Baroness makes an important point about us being a global hub and welcoming the whole world. For centuries the UK has been open to a number of different nationalities from across the world. Indeed, my own family came to the UK in the Windrush generation. I have always been clear that we should be a global Britain, not just focused on one small part of the world.

I want to take the opportunity to answer the question that I forgot to answer about international students. Anyone in England is eligible for the vaccine if they fall within the current eligibility criteria, and international students are encouraged to register with a GP.

On free speech, it is critical that our universities remain places where you can have free expression without fear. The essence of free speech is being able to tolerate views that you may not agree with but it is important that they are expressed. Universities should remain hubs of free speech.

My Lords, I refer to my registered interests. Given that this is not really a public health problem in its scale, but it is a bar to the recruitment of international students and their integration once they are here, may I urge the Minister—even if he cannot find a quick solution to the NHS app—to put out some information on how Covid passes can be obtained and to make sure that all universities and students have access to that information as soon as possible?

Last night I took part in a debate that involved the issue of the Covid pass, particularly with the boosters. I was frustrated because I thought I had a date I could announce. That was pulled at the last moment, but we are very close to a solution. The technical point on test and trace is that, at the moment, it is unable to validate the vaccination status of people whose vaccines are not registered on the database. We are looking at whether that can be done on trust, or whether that would open a loophole for getting around the system. I have been assured when pushing the NHS on this that it is looking at an answer.

The Minister must accept that this a very confusing area for everybody. Perhaps he would like to clarify the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday on what impact tougher overseas travel rules and self-isolation for those without a jab might have. He mentioned those yesterday in the press conference. I think they are linked to the Question my noble friend asked. It is very important that the NHS app shows the booster as soon as possible, because it is going to cause a lot of trouble for Christmas travel.

I welcome questions from noble Lords, particularly on getting the booster on the app, because when I am talking to officials in the department and the NHS it shows how important it is that we do this as quickly as possible. One of the tasks is to be accountable and to push the NHS and others to make sure that we are doing this. Sadly, when I ask what the problem is on test and trace, I am told that it is unable to validate the vaccination status of people whose vaccines are not recorded on a national immunisation management system. I have asked about passenger locator forms and whether we could use a similar technology. At the moment that is done on trust, but you face a very high fine if you are misleading; maybe that could be a solution. I assure noble Lords that I really am pushing.

My Lords, I refer to my registered interests. I have printed off the advice given by my university, Cambridge, to international students and what it means to be fully vaccinated. To come into the country, if they are fully vaccinated, they do not have to isolate when they arrive, as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, pointed out. If the system can understand when they arrive in the country that they are fully vaccinated, why can the NHS app not understand that they are fully vaccinated when they get pinged by test and trace?

I share the frustration of the noble Baroness and others. This is not great for our international, global outlook, or for the fact that we want to attract the best students from around the world, not just Europe. We are a global country and we have to address this. I am pushing the NHS on this because it is really important. The problem is the national immunisation management system, to use the technical term, and the inability to validate the data of overseas visitors.

My Lords, I can sense the Minister’s frustration in this, but we have been aware of it for some time; this should have been sorted out a long time ago, yet here we are now in November. Does the Minister accept that all departments must play their part in achieving the Government’s aim of increasing the number of international students? Will he assure us that his department will be both flexible and creative—with the emphasis on “creative”—in resolving this and other similar problems that may arise?

I assure the noble Baroness that when I was pressing this issue yesterday with officials in preparation for this Question, I stressed the importance of flexibility and creativity. We need to think outside the box on many issues. One issue we are looking at is: if passenger locator forms can do this, why can the NHS Test and Trace system not? I am told that is because it is based on self-certification. I am pushing the NHS to address and analyse the different options as soon as possible. It is really important we send a message to the rest of the world that we are open to the brightest and the best from across the world.

My Lords, in Queen’s University Belfast, the current position is determined by the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland and is based on your vaccination status and age, rather than on whether you have home or overseas status. Would the Minister engage with the devolved Administrations, particularly the Northern Ireland Executive, who seem to have best practice in relation to this issue?

One of the advantages of having devolved Administrations and different practices is that we can learn from best practice, so I will take the noble Baroness’s advice.

My Lords, does the noble Lord believe the rules and regulations regarding the Covid-19 pandemic are clear, consistent and easy to understand?