Order. I wish to make a short statement before we take the next urgent question. Last Thursday evening, the Government announced changes to the countries listed on the green and red travel lists. They also announced that they intended that fully vaccinated UK residents returning from amber list countries would not have to isolate from later in the summer. These are important announcements. They should be made to this House first. The fact that Transport Ministers were answering oral questions in the Chamber that morning only strengthens the case.
Although I do not have to explain my reasons for allowing the urgent question, in this case I want to say to those on the Government Benches that if Ministers choose to make important announcements outside this Chamber first, they must not be surprised that I will grant urgent questions on those matters. In fact, I will just continue to grant them on the basis that there may be a statement, because it seems that this Chamber is being ridden over roughshod. I will continue to make sure that this House gets an opportunity to scrutinise the Government, but it would be better for all concerned if the Government simply followed their own ministerial code and made important announcements to this House, to which Members are elected to represent their constituents and to ensure that Ministers and Secretaries of State can be scrutinised with questions—not via the media, but via MPs.
I call Jim McMahon to ask the urgent question.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans for international travel.
After 15 months of restrictions and lockdowns, I know that everybody in the House is determined to get this pandemic behind us, so that we might finally begin to think about returning to some sort of normality. Decisions over how to control our borders during these unprecedented times are of course never easy. In everything we do, the overwhelming priority is to protect the public and the hard-won gains that have been made.
Last week, in recognition of the hugely successfully vaccination programme, we were able to confirm that in the future, when I will certainly return to the House, fully vaccinated people will be able to avoid quarantine when they return from countries on the amber list.
I want to be realistic with the House: this is a complicated policy that requires time to work through. First, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has yet to opine on whether children should be part of a vaccination programme. They are not at present, and we must resolve how children would therefore be treated under a programme that enabled people to travel without vaccinations.
Next is the question of what to do for people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or are perhaps on one of the non-standard vaccine trials. That accounts for around half a million people and we need to work out what to do in that respect.
There is also the question of how to recognise vaccine status at ports and airports. That is easier for people who have been vaccinated in the UK, because the main NHS app—I should stress that I am not talking about the test and trace app—can already display a person’s vaccine status, but it is less easy to prove for someone coming from overseas, particularly if their country has a paper-based system.
As a result of all this work, we will announce to the House when we are ready to make these decisions in order to bring this system into place. It will most likely be phased in for UK residents first.
As has been said, we have confirmed changes to the traffic light system, which take place tonight, at 4 am. That will change the countries that are on the red and the green lists. There are some complications with establishing the list on a UK-wide basis, including with the devolved Administrations. Once the decisions have been made, it is also very difficult not to have them escape from the various different Administrations, so I apologise to the House for not always being able to get here first before I start to read of them in the newspapers. In this particular case, I heard them instantaneously—or within an hour or so, I should say—from the devolved Administrations elsewhere in the UK, meaning that the story was already out there. Malta, Madeira, the Balearic islands and several UK overseas territories and Caribbean islands will be added to the green list, while a further six countries will move to the red category, as we continue to adapt our system.
Our border regime is one of the toughest in the world and I know, from chairing meetings of the G7 Transport Ministers, that it is closely tracked and in some cases followed by other countries. We are now focused on the long-term issue of how to keep our country safe while getting international travel back up and running. These decisions are not easy and will not be enhanced by simplistic calls to stick countries on either a red list or a green list without providing the level of detail that the amber list helps to provide. In comparison, this Government are taking a cautious, evidence-based approach. I will return to the House with more information once we are aware of the details.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. As you pointed out, it was unacceptable that the Government were not willing to come to the House to make the announcement when the traffic light system was reviewed last week. Thank you so much for your robust defence of Parliament on this matter.
Passengers and the industry want to see a clear plan of action, supported by transparent data and with measured interventions to balance the urgent need to keep our borders safe with the desire to support aviation and tourism.
First, on data and country-by-country assessment, I urge the Secretary of State to publish not only the decision-making criteria for the traffic light system but, importantly, the analysis that underpins it.
We have been pushing for the Government to show international leadership, but so far they have failed to step up. Why will they not bring forward concrete plans for an international vaccine passport that will be accepted by key destination countries?
International co-operation is key to getting travel back up and running again, yet the Prime Minister missed a golden opportunity at the G7, including with the US. What progress has been made on reaching an agreement to see the safe return of transatlantic travel?
As much as we want to see more countries added to the green list, we also want to see a robust red list. Given that the easing of restrictions has been delayed throughout the country, will the Secretary of State now commit to reviewing the decision not to place India on the red list, so that lessons can be learned?
Labour’s position is clear: we have set out a sectoral deal and a simplified red and green list, supported by clear country-by-country assessment that shows the clear direction of travel. The Government also promised a sectoral deal, so when can the industry expect to see that promised sectoral deal? In the early days of this pandemic the public were willing to support the Government as they learnt on the job but, frankly, patience has run out. It is important that action is taken, and taken now.
First, it is worth saying that I keep hearing the hon. Gentleman calling for the data to be published. For his ease, I have been to the gov.uk website and checked it for him. The JCVI and Public Health England do indeed publish their methodology and the data behind it for each of these countries. It is already published. For the sake of the time of the House, I will not run through it, but it is there for him to see.
The hon. Gentleman calls for a passport that could be used for people who are double-vaccinated, yet at the same time his policy is to put every single country in the red list. That would mean that somebody who was able to visit a dying relative in an amber list country would now have the cost and expense of returning to Government quarantine in order to just go on that mercy mission. I think that what he is suggesting is quite cruel.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the progress on the US-UK working group. I can confirm that it took place for the first time last Thursday and progress is being made. That is an officials-level meeting and they will say more when they are ready to. There is a whole series of complexities to resolve. For example, the US does not currently recognise AstraZeneca because AstraZeneca has not applied for the licence. On the other side, we do not have any particular system to recognise vaccine status from the United States, because it does not have a digitised system, as we do with our NHS—it has 50 separate systems—so there are complexities.
India has been discussed many times, but I remind the hon. Gentleman again that it went on our red list a week before it became a variant of interest and two weeks before it became a variant of concern, so it is simply not the case that it was not already on the red list. Even when it was on the amber list, people had to take a test before they came here. They had to take a test when they got here, on day two and on day eight. They had to quarantine. It is worth looking at those facts.
The hon. Gentleman again calls for the red and green list. He wants to scrap the amber list. He wants to simplify it, no doubt before claiming that we should publish yet more detail, but it simply does not make sense. He cannot stand up and call for further support for airlines and the aviation sector while deliberately trying to ensure that pretty much every person who comes to this country has to go to Government quarantine hotels. It simply does not stack up.
The hon. Gentleman asks about support for the aviation and travel sectors. They have indeed been at the forefront of this pandemic and £7 billion of support is being provided. We are continuing to do our bit. But the best support of all that we can provide is to get international travel running again. That means not taking all the countries in the amber list and sticking them in the red list.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker, for giving us this opportunity to scrutinise. You have constituents who are impacted and they should know that you have given them a voice in this place.
I also thank the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for giving us this opportunity. I disagree with his suggestion that we turn the amber list to red. I believe it should be turned to green, because we have a successful vaccination programme and our NHS app. We know that the Secretary of State is pushing for that to happen later in the summer, and therein lies my question. For the domestic restrictions being eased, we have a road map with data and dates. For international travel, can we have the equivalent—a flight path—so we know what is going to happen, when and by what measure? Perhaps I could ask him to give us a little more detail now, but also consider whether he would be willing to give a little more certainty to industry and passengers alike.
I will certainly be very pleased to return to this House with further details as soon as next month. I explained in my opening remarks that there are quite a number of complexities to do with how we treat children and younger people who have not yet had the opportunity to have two vaccinations. Although we will have everybody on a single vaccination, promised by 19 July, there will still be significant numbers who would not be able to travel under that system, so there are a lot of fairness issues to resolve too. However, like my hon. Friend, I share the absolute desire to return international travel as soon as we practically can to something as close as possible to normality, while recognising that it is important that we ensure that variants of concern are properly monitored and not brought into this country. One of the problems that we have is that no other country in the world sequences the genome at the rate that we do, which means that it is sometimes very difficult to tell what is happening in other countries, so we sometimes have to be cautious, but I will return to this House.
Aviation is the hardest-hit sector, according to the Office for National Statistics. One third of the 6,000 jobs based at Glasgow airport and countless more in the supply chain are gone, a proportion that is common in the sector. In business travel, 60% of workers have gone and of those who remain, 80% are on furlough, and that is the key point: hundreds of thousands of jobs have gone while there is a job retention scheme in place.
This is the 36th time I have asked about support for the aviation sector since the start of the pandemic, back in the day when the Secretary of State was boasting of saving Flybe and the Chancellor was promising a sector-specific deal. With many parts of Europe now wary of the UK delta variant outbreak, five bleak winters in a row beckon for the sector. Are the Government finally considering keeping their word on grant support and extending its limited and capped business rates support to at least match the duration of the unlimited cover in Scotland? Crucially, is the Secretary of State lobbying the Treasury to extend furlough for the sector? Finally, does the clinical advice given to the Government fully support these decisions on double vaccines for travellers and travel to amber list countries?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who often speaks up for aviation, given the airport-constituency connection that he has. I point out again that we have provided billions of pounds of support for the aviation sector, including to the Scottish aviation sector, through money that has gone from the furlough programme, for example.
The hon. Gentleman asked a series of questions, and I fear I may have to redirect him in some cases to his own Scottish Government, because I have the Scottish airports constantly on the line to me complaining about the actions of the Scottish Government, who seem to do everything they possibly can to make it harder for airlines and airports to see a route to a recovery. That said, there was a strong degree of work together to bring in the latest changes to the traffic light system.
If we do not have a meaningful summer of transatlantic operations, it will cost the UK economy an estimated £2.5 billion and mean up to 52,000 jobs are lost, so may I encourage my right hon. Friend to make sure that we press for that UK-US taskforce on opening up international travel to conclude as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend, who has done a great deal to support the aviation sector, is absolutely right. The Prime Minister and the President announced the working group. As I mentioned before, it has already met, and it is working on the details of trying to reopen international travel. We are faced with a section 212(f) executive order that was brought in by the previous American Administration and has not been rescinded by the current one. We need to see that removed, in addition to sorting some of the complexities of accepting vaccine status both ways around. Our officials are working on that at pace, and I look forward to further developments.
Does the Secretary of State agree that restrictions on UK citizens’ travel is not just from the rules from his own Department, but from the entry requirements imposed by some of our international partners? Malta, for example, may well be on our green list, but it will not allow in anybody over the age of 12 who has not received both jabs. As he will know, no one under the age of 18 in the UK can receive both jabs yet. There are reports this morning that the negotiations on the UK-US air bridge have faltered because of concerns in the US about rising rates of the delta variant in the UK. Can the Secretary of State confirm what conversations he is having with the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care about attempts to combat the rise of the delta variant in this country, so that we can give greater confidence to our international partners and enable them to relax some of their restrictions?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to be concerned about the delta variant, but the reason we know about the delta variant in this country is that we sequence around 50% of all the positive PCR cases we pick up. No country in the world is getting close to that. It is just a few per cent. in, for example, France, Germany and elsewhere, so I suspect that some of the delta variant is simply knowing about the delta variant being present. We are working with partners internationally to encourage more to sequence the variant and then upload it to the GISAID website, which is internationally recognised, so that everyone can see what is going on. By doing so, we will be able to have a more transparent system to get aviation going faster.
The hon. Lady also asked about conversations. I have already spoken to the new Health Secretary. We are both very keen to open this up, but we must do so in a way that is as safe as possible.
This morning I caught up with owners Heidi and Andy from Oasis Travel, an independent travel agent in Tunstall, to hear what they need from my right hon. Friend to help them to recover from the pandemic, and the key thing was clarity. So will he reassure Heidi and Andy from Oasis Travel that we can make the guidance more simple and clear, giving confidence both to travel agents and the residents of Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke about the rules when going for a long overdue summer break?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about clarity on this. That is why a traffic light system—followed, as I have mentioned, by other countries; France, for example, has introduced one since we introduced ours—makes sense. Everyone understands red, amber and green. We have talked about the desire to bring in a system that also uses the benefits of double vaccination that will overlay that. For the benefit of his constituents at Oasis Travel, we are looking not only at the country but at individuals’ status in order to provide greater clarity and to be able to open up as much as possible for summer.
The travel sector, particularly the business travel sector, sees the reopening of US-UK travel as vital to being viable. Will the Secretary of State update the House on who sits on the US-UK travel taskforce, when it will publish its recommendations, and whether the reports of concerns over the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in the press this week will have any impact?
Yes, I can provide a bit more detail. The group is chaired at Cabinet Office level and the equivalent in the United States. It was, as the hon. Lady will know, set up by the President and the Prime Minister at the G7. There has not been a specific date provided for publishing the group’s work, but it meets on a weekly basis. I urge her and others to discount what they read in the newspapers. I did not recognise the output that I saw in the stories this morning other than that it is true that there are issues that I have mentioned at the Dispatch Box about recognition in both directions. These are very real problems. There are 50 states in America and they all use different systems for showing whether people are fully vaccinated—to throw another one into the pot. However, we are working very closely together and the desire is there between the US and the UK to normalise travel again.
The Government’s intention to scrap quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated people arriving from amber list countries is very welcome, but can I stress to my right hon. Friend how important it is to have clarity over the timings now instead of later in the summer? Ideally we need this in place at the start of the school holidays to give families the confidence to book and to ensure that it has the maximum impact in helping the travel sector to recover. I do not have to tell him that if it is delayed for too long, the summer for the travel sector will be lost, and that will have huge financial implications for the sector.
I do recognise the desire to see the system clarified. I went to some lengths in my opening remarks to explain that we have some issues that we need to resolve, including what the JCVI is going to recommend when it finishes opining over whether children should be vaccinated, and, without knowing the answer to that, what alternative system would be in place. As Members have mentioned, we have already seen Malta, for example, putting in place its own restrictions on children at the particular age of 12. There are complexities to deal with. However, I hear what my hon. Friend and others have said about the desire for clarity. I will return to this House once we have made progress and make sure that he is here to hear it first.
UK airlines, excluding the wider aviation sector, have announced over 30,000 job cuts so far, and that is before we even consider the wider supply chain in the aviation sector. British Airways and General Electric are based in my constituency and are major employers for Pontypridd and Taff-Ely. Both have had to make significant job cuts in difficult circumstances, and I fear that there could be more on the horizon. Labour has consistently called for a sectoral deal that secures jobs and protects the aviation supply chain. Thousands of jobs depend on it. Why will not Ministers give aviation the support that they promised?
I have to say, we are providing £7 billion of support. The hon. Lady says that the Opposition have consistently called for support, but that is not the case. The former shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), said:
“we can no longer accept public funds paying for projects that make the shift to zero”
carbon harder. In other words, she was not prepared to support the aviation sector, as we have done. [Interruption.] It is on record. I understand the perspective of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), and I agree with her as it happens, but the Opposition’s policy has been all over the place.
Travel companies in my constituency such as Full Circle and Comfy Class are understandably keen to have more countries on the green list. I appreciate that there is a balance, because I have also had emails from constituents concerned that if we move too quickly, we could end up with further restrictions here. However, will my right hon. Friend reassure the companies in my constituency and elsewhere that it is still his aspiration to get as many countries on the green list as soon as he can, providing it is safe to do so?
That is absolutely the case. I want to reassure my hon. Friend and the whole House that I wish to see travel reopened—I am the Secretary of State for Transport; I want to see transport operating. No one comes into this job to try to close down travel. We have to be realistic about the pandemic, which is global in nature and is still running at record rates around the world beyond our shores. It is tempting to think it is over because we have managed to vaccinate such a high proportion of our own population, but no other major economy has done the same thing. However, I can provide my hon. Friend with the reassurance that we are moving on this as fast as we possibly can. Subject to the expert advice, I am looking forward to working with my right hon. Friend the new Health Secretary to move things along.
What I picked up on a recent visit to Heathrow with the Home Affairs Committee was that the Government always seem to be behind the curve. They always seems to be having to deal with the current crisis and not thinking ahead to what the next crisis will be in travel, particularly at the borders. We have heard lots of reasons today why it is all very difficult for the Secretary of State to come with a plan, but can he give a firm date for when he will have a clear plan, which is what the public are really calling for, along with the travel industry?
I hear the calls for clarity, and I appreciate what the hon. Lady is saying, but is she suggesting that we should leave children behind this summer? Should people who have not been vaccinated be able to travel? How would she know whether an inward traveller coming here from another country had been vaccinated if we do not have a digital certificate from them? These are not abstract questions; they are real questions that have to be added to what the scientists know or do not know about the ability of somebody with coronavirus to get it again and/or carry it—just ask Nick Robinson what happened to him. Make no mistake: I want to get things opened up as quickly as possible—that is my intention and desire—but we cannot throw caution to the wind and risk going backwards by bringing in a new variant of concern because of all the calls to simply ignore the facts.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that last answer, and I accept it. However, I went to Gibraltar for the weekend of 11 to 14 June and was astonished by the hoops I had to go through on return from the green Rock. I had to take three tests and fill out a very complex passenger locator form to come home. Given that nearly 49% of our population have now been double vaccinated, will my right hon. Friend have a look at reducing the cost, the bureaucracy and the time wasting that occurs when people return to the UK from even the safest countries, such as the Rock of Gibraltar, which is a green area?
I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that he should not have needed to take three tests. Returning from a green country, he would simply be required to fill in his passenger locator form, take a pre-departure test and then a single test on day two. That is used for sequencing the genome, which we have spoken about a lot—I know that other countries are not as interested as we have been in that subject.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about driving down the cost. I was pleased to see on the website yesterday that there are now costs in the £20, £30 and £40 range, rather than the very high costs previously. We have now organised the website so that people can search by region and cost, in order to buy a package that suits their pocket. I agree with him about driving down the costs and driving out the bureaucracy, linking up the passenger locator form with the gates, so that when he comes through the border, he is not stopped specifically because of his travel.
Mark Tanzer, of ABTA, told the Treasury Committee that 44% of ABTA members anticipate more redundancies as furlough tapers off. This is an avoidable harm, so may I ask the Transport Committee what conversations he has had with the Chancellor on continuing furlough at the full 80% rate, at least for travel and tourism?
I always have ongoing conversations and that is one thing that has led to furlough being available—and not only that, but a scheme that has, in essence, paid the business rates for all the major airports in this country, apart from the very largest two or three. That has been extended again for a further six months as well. The best way we can get this resolved is to get travel going again, and our level of vaccination means that that can happen; thanks to the UK Government, everybody throughout the UK is enjoying the highest level of vaccination of any major economy.
Our historic vaccine programme has meant that we have been able to begin safely reopening international travel, and I must add that my constituency has truly led the way on the vaccination programme lately, and I must thank all those involved for that. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right, however, that we take a cautious approach, so that we do not jeopardise the enormous sacrifices and gains made by the British people in the past year? Of course, that will mean that next year we can travel safely for the World cup, as, I hope, the rightful winners of the euros this year.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the only caveat I would add is that I am really keen to see us open up—we want to see it happen and we are going to put all the measures in place to try to do that. One frustration I think we all feel in this House is that because we have managed to get ourselves vaccinated and because we are sequencing the genome to such an extent, it is tempting to think that the entire world is already there. Sadly, that is not the case; we are waiting for others to catch up. So she is right to say that we need to take a cautious approach, but none the less it is one that will start to see benefits for this country and people who want to travel.
The threat to the travel and tourism industry is very real. Just this week, I met constituents who normally work on aircraft but now have either been furloughed or in some cases made redundant several months ago and they are extremely concerned about the ongoing future of the industry. So it is regrettable that the Transport Secretary should seek to misrepresent the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) in terms of recognising an increase in the number of nations on the green list, seeking clarification of the system and calling for international co-operation on vaccine passports, which can give real certainty to the industry and confidence to holidaymakers, so that we can try to save some of these crucial jobs in our industry.
On the contrary, I have been listening carefully to what the hon. Member for Oldham West has had to say from the Front Bench. A few days ago, he was challenged about how many countries should go on to the green list and he said, “Well, from our point of view it has got to be about the science.” He said that he cannot give an exact number and that we have to take the expert advice—what on earth does he think we have been doing all these months?
My constituency has a lot of aerospace manufacturing, which is suffering the knock-back from the lack of international travel. At a recent meeting with pilots from my constituency, I was told that the additions to the green list will up their business to only 10% of their capacity, so they really are struggling. They asked whether we could avoid any last-minute changes to policy and give people as much notice as possible. I need to stress that they were asking for a date on which double-vaccinated people would be able to travel a lot more freely. I said I would pass those messages on, which I have done.
I am grateful for the direct message. Sadly, the pandemic and the virus do not give us much advance notice; we often find that a country is on the green list and we need to move it, as we saw with Portugal and Spain with the travel corridors last year. One thing that we have done to provide a little more forward guidance is use the green watch list, the purpose of which is to help my hon. Friend’s constituents to see when a country may be a bit closer to the amber border and when they would therefore want to be more aware. I hope that that provides a bit of additional guidance, but I will return to the House next month with more details of what double vaccination can mean for people and for the travel industry.
The Prime Minister has acknowledged that this summer will not be typical with regard to international travel. Regional airports such as Newcastle International rely on the summer season to generate the bulk of their revenue and tide them over during the quiet periods in the winter. Will the Secretary of State look particularly at regional airports this winter? What support can they be given to ensure that not generating revenue over the summer does not lead them into difficulty later in the year, once international travel has opened up?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the struggle for regional airports in particular. They do not have pockets as deep as those of some of the very large airports, which of course are also struggling. They have had their business rates paid, as in the case of Newcastle, for the entirety of the pandemic so far; that has been extended for a further six months and they have also had the furlough scheme and various loans available. The best thing that we can do for them is get travel reopened, and that is everything we are focused on now.
Over the weekend, we had the full panoply of the Stasi state with its pettifogging prying into people’s private lives, including show trials, denunciation, hidden cameras and inevitable hypocrisy and rule-breaking. Like the Secretary of State, I would like a lot more international travel and I am very relaxed, but as the Government seem to panic at the slightest rise in infections, when the Secretary of State argues his case in the Cabinet, will he please not put freedom day at risk? Will he please not risk any return to these fatuous restrictions over the winter? There has to be a balance. Better controls at the border than destroying our freedom at home.
I think it is true to say, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, that people are fed up with the restrictions. The good news is that the evidence clearly shows divergence between the number of cases, the number of people going into hospital and—thank goodness—the number of deaths, so I have high confidence that 19 July will be the date. I look forward to people being able to regain some of the freedoms that have been too sadly lost over the past year and a half.
The Secretary of State said in his statement that
“this is a complicated policy that requires time to work through”,
but today he has pointedly and repeatedly failed to commit to additional support for the beleaguered travel sector until the return of free travel can be re-established. Does he understand the disappointment and anger at the failure to extend additional support to the travel industry to prevent the potential loss of tens of thousands more jobs?
The hon. Lady perhaps did not hear me mention that we are paying the entirety of the business rates bill for every airport—I must check the facts here—in England. I hope that the same is happening under the Scottish Government in Scotland. We are paying the bills through the furlough scheme of all the employees in the sector, both in airports and in the airlines. We have been providing financing—billions of pounds, in fact—to enable airports and airlines to keep themselves afloat through this crisis. I have to say that when it comes to these discussions, invariably the people who most do not want to restart travel tend to be the Government in Scotland, so I am a little surprised to hear the hon. Lady’s comments.
The travel sector has had to deal with more disruption from the pandemic than most as countries are added and then taken away from different coloured lists. Travel agents have been particularly affected as customers book, then cancel their holidays. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that they receive the support that they need to enable those businesses to survive at this most difficult time?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Businesses across the travel industry have been drawing on the £350 billion-worth of grants and loans, VAT deferrals, the furlough scheme and much else besides. The best thing we can do is get the country flying again and get people moving again. Our exemplary progress with the vaccination roll-out gives us the best opportunity of that happening sooner rather than later.
As the vaccine rolls out and as international travel increases, if we are to prevent new variants from sending us back to square one, there needs to be an effective surveillance system with transparent analysis built in so that there can be swift action. We do not have that effective system at the moment, as we have seen from the fact that the delta variant has whipped around the country and is now closing schools and preventing UK residents from travelling abroad because people do not want it to spread. We must improve that system and not be in a situation whereby so many cases can arrive in a country before preventive measures are taken. Will the Secretary of State agree, as part of improving that system, to finally start publishing the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s analyses—not just the arrivals data, but the analyses of what is happening in other countries? The Scientific Group for Emergencies papers are published. We have been calling for the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s papers to be published for almost a year. Please publish them now. What has the Secretary of State got to hide?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right about the need to prevent the variants. Our surveillance system, which involves our sequencing the genome more than any other country in the world, as I know she appreciates, is a big part of that. We frequently find that we know about overseas variants before the host country and consequently we often tell them about it first.
I want to ensure that the record of the House is entirely accurate. I talked about the risk assessment methodology that is already published online. The methodology includes variant assessment, triage, risk assessment and outcomes, which inform ministerial decisions. Under each heading, there is tremendous detail. For example, triage includes testing rates per 100,000, weekly instances, test positivity, evidence of overseas variants under investigation and much else. Then we publish the data on both the Public Health England and the JBC websites. I invite the right hon. Lady to look at that data. I think she will also appreciate that there are times when, for diplomatic reasons, it would be difficult to publish other countries’ data before they have done so. However, she will find a wealth of information, which we are already publishing, on the JBC and PHE websites.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who is clearly putting in the effort to try to reopen international travel, but I also echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the Chair of the Select Committee. We need the equivalent of the domestic lockdown road map for reopening international travel. I appreciate that there are complex issues to resolve on opening travel to the amber list for those who have been fully vaccinated, but I am sure he realises that if we take too long to do that, there are travel sector businesses in our constituencies that will not be there to capitalise.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I want the issues that he raised to be resolved as soon as possible. Perhaps I should mention that through the G7 and the OECD, we are working to create internationally recognised systems. At the moment, every country is going off in its own direction, even among the EU 27, where there is no agreement on the basic standards for people moving around the world. He is right and I will be happy to return here to provide that further clarity.
May I refer the House to my interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Pakistan? Along with Bangladesh, Pakistan was placed on the red list at the start of April despite a clear disparity in cases with other nations on the green list that had high infection rates and variants of concern. I and other APPG colleagues have requested disclosure of the figures behind that decision, which we have still not received. The coronavirus positivity rate in Pakistan has now dropped to 1.78% and there are no reports of a variant of concern from the nation. Pakistan has also recently developed the PakVac, which will help in the fight. First, will the Secretary of State give me a full answer on why Pakistan was placed on the red list in the first place? Secondly, when will Pakistan be taken off the red list and placed on the amber or—ideally—green list?
The point that the hon. Lady and the whole House will wish to recognise is that last year we were able only to look at the level of infection, which she rightly mentioned, as the indication of a country’s position in what is now the traffic light system. However, as she will see when she looks at the JBC methodology, it is now far more complex. Many more factors are taken into account, including in particular the extent to which a country freely uploads its data to GISAID, the extent to which sequencing is carried out and the extent to which a country has vaccinated its domestic population as well as much else besides. All of that is available on the JBC website. I am happy on her behalf—I make this offer across the House—to put the authorities in Pakistan in touch with our scientists in order to better understand what a country might need to do to find itself back on the amber or, indeed, green list.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the efforts he is making to open international travel. However, will he look at the rules associated with passengers entering the United Kingdom from international hub airports and the added complexity that often brings? Doha, and Qatar Airways in particular, support many of the regional airports. He talked about the difficulties in regional airports and the support needed for those without the capacity of some of the larger UK airports. Will he consider the status of passengers who traditionally fly out of those regions?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That follows from the last question, really. It is no longer about just looking at what the infection rate is in a particular country; we need to understand who travels through that country. That can change a country’s rating, even though otherwise it would be perhaps a green list country. I refer him to the JBC’s advice, which sets out in considerable detail the various factors it is looking at. I extend the offer to countries and territories across the world to be in touch with us to better understand how we assess their data. Much of the time, a good hint for them is to be entirely transparent with the data and upload it to GISAID for sequencing so that we know that they know their level of variants of concern.
The communities around Heathrow are hugely dependent on aviation for jobs, so they have been devastated by the pandemic’s impact on international travel. Hounslow borough alone has lost 43,000 jobs, with lower-income communities hardest hit, and 22,000 Hounslow residents are still furloughed and worrying about the end of the scheme in September. Aviation and its supply chain is not in a position to recover by September, and the Transport Secretary repeating figures from the general schemes from which the sector has received support is of no help for the future. When will Ministers announce the specific sector support they promised? Will that include a sector-specific extension of furlough?
I am concerned about the position of airlines and airports and of the aviation sector generally—the House will be interested to know that I track it every single week. I am a little concerned about the hon. Member dismissing £7 billion of support as if it is not a significant figure as well as, indeed, the bespoke work done to help airports in particular to pay their rates. She will appreciate that it is for the Chancellor to come to the House to explain whether further measures will be taken, and I am sure he will return to the House when the next Budget and autumn statement come round.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As I have the pleasure of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on business travel, I particularly welcome the Department’s recent announcement about quarantine exemptions for business travellers, but my right hon. Friend will know that they are restricted to a very small number of jet-setting multinational executives. The business travel ecosystem is much wider than that, so will he look again at the criteria for significant economic benefit, and instead look at just economic benefit, and set out when he might be able to widen the exemption to all business travel?
I am very happy to take a further look at it, and my hon. Friend is right to point to the exemptions that have been provided for large job-creating travel under very specific and restricted circumstances. To answer his question, we are best to pursue fully vaccinated status in order to open up travel further. Of course, that would apply to businesses as much as it would apply to everyone else. None the less, that is the route to getting business and other travel going again.
From the Secretary of State’s response, it is clear he was not listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), who said that Labour supports an expansion of the green list and that we want the rapid introduction of covid passports. The Secretary of State claims that it is complicated, but other Europeans and Americans are already free to travel with a vaccine passport, a negative test or proof of infection in the last six months. Why are we less free than they are and less free than we were last summer, when we did not have the vaccines?
I am tempted to say that we cannot have it both ways. We have to be vigilant and aware of the risks of travelling to every single country in the world. Without exception, other countries do fewer tests of sequencing, so they do not know about variants. I see that the right hon. Gentleman does not agree, which is fine, but because they are not doing the sequencing it opens us up to an unknown degree of risk. [Interruption.] He says “Germany”, but 1.3% of their positive cases are sequenced, whereas we sequence nearly 50% of our cases—that is a good case in point.
Of course we are looking at what other countries are doing. We are also making sure that we are talking to them all; I speak to my counterparts on a regular basis. However, the fact of the matter is that we have a traffic light system. We need those countries to be able, ideally, to get into the green category and, if not, to be able to use the fully vaccinated route in order to open up travel further.
I was a travel agent and tour operator before I came to the House, and I have great sympathy for the industry. The Secretary of State will realise that travel is not just about holidays. I was made aware yesterday of a very sad case of people needing to travel as soon as possible following a sudden death of a young relative in the United States of America. In a state of shock, they wanted to know what they should do. If the Secretary of State can bring forward travel bridges, especially with the United States of America, it would help people in such circumstances.
I want to let my hon. Friend know that, in the very sad case that he talked about, America’s being on the amber list would allow them to travel. There is a wider issue with the United States around executive order 212(f), which prevents travel from the UK, European nations and many other countries within the previous 14 days, so people may well require special arrangements on the US side as well. That is not the British Government’s doing, of course, which is why we are working with the Americans through the working group to try to remove such impediments.
The “wait and see” statement last Thursday just has not given the vision for international travel that many were hoping for, and it is not good enough to leave major airports, such as Newcastle International, in the dark. The outlook looks extremely challenging, and the Government cannot delay their aviation recovery plan any longer. The sector needs a comprehensive package of support to ensure that it can increase global connectivity and drive growth in our region in a planned way, and we need Newcastle airport to thrive for that. The Government say they are committed to global Britain, but when will they start acting like it?
I urge the hon. Lady to talk to her own Front Benchers, who are trying to remove the amber list entirely and chuck all those countries, presumably, into red; the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) is not able to tell us how many would go into green. Meanwhile, we are supporting Newcastle airport; as I mentioned, we have paid the entirety of its business rates throughout this crisis. The best hope of all for it is to get travel going again.
I have said this several times and I do not want to labour the point, but I will be returning to the House with full details of exactly how a double-vaccinated—fully vaccinated—status could help with international travel. I have also tried to explain why it is not quite as straightforward as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) might imagine; for example, what do we do about children, who have not yet had their vaccination status confirmed?
I welcome the decision to loosen travel restrictions on double-jabbed Brits, but I also agree with other speakers regarding the need for a clear road map. However, whatever that road map contains, it will take time for passenger confidence to recover. Thousands of jobs in the travel industry are still at stake, so what will my right hon. Friend do to explore all options for further financial support for the travel industry?
My hon. Friend will know that I have been working with the Chancellor throughout this crisis, which is how £7 billion-worth of support has been provided to the travel sector. I also think it is very important, as my hon. Friend and others have said, to be able to set out as clear a path as possible to the reopening of international travel, notwithstanding the fact that, unfortunately, the virus is raging in different parts of the world and new variants of interest, at least, and sometimes variants of concern, are coming about on a monthly basis. We will do everything we can to put in place a system that involves both the traffic lights and the double-vaccinated status in order to provide a sense of certainty—as much as can be done in a global pandemic—for the aviation sector.
With greater restrictions being placed on UK travellers to Spain, Portugal, Germany and Hong Kong, there is no doubt that the aviation and travel sectors are still in a difficult place. We have already heard today the chief executive of the Association of British Travel Agents, Mark Tanzer, tell the Treasury Committee that 44% of ABTA members anticipate more redundancies as furlough tapers off. That is on top of 37% of those jobs already having been lost or being at risk, so action is plainly necessary. Does the Minister agree that there must be a tailored package of financial support, crucially including furlough extension, for the travel sector, as called for by the Travel Day of Action campaign?
I think the hon. Lady is aware that these are matters for the Chancellor, and I know that he will be coming to the House at some point to set out his future plans as we get through this pandemic.
My constituent Tom Williams kindly agreed to participate in the Novavax trial. He was promised that that would not disadvantage him in any way. He is now fully vaccinated with Novavax and, restrictions willing, is hoping to go to France this summer with his family. As the European Medicines Agency has not yet certified the Novavax vaccine, the trip is now at risk. Will my right hon. Friend investigate this case as a priority and do all he can to ensure that Mr Williams can travel with his family?
Yes, I certainly will.
The changes announced by the Secretary of State will make a properly functioning test and trace system even more important. Last week, however, we saw the damning report of the National Audit Office on the English test and trace system, and just yesterday responses to a series of freedom of information requests made by my friend and colleague the MSP for North East Fife suggested a cover-up by the Scottish Government of failures in their test and protect scheme. What steps are being taken to work with the devolved nations on the functioning of testing regimes, and how will the Secretary of State ensure that those schemes are not overwhelmed as a result of the changing picture?
One of the very important things that we have been doing is automating the process of being able, essentially, to track people no matter where they have come back from. With regard to international travel, for example, the passenger locator form now automatically links with someone’s passport and provides confirmation as they enter, either through an e-gate or through a Border Force inspector, of where they have come from and therefore whether they need to self-isolate or quarantine. Those conversations are ongoing, and I keep in touch with the devolved Administrations about that on an ongoing basis.
The Opposition do not seem to be able to name any countries or destinations they want to add to the green list, but may I suggest a couple—the Greek islands and the Canaries? Both have very low infection rates, they are very popular destinations for UK travellers, and they seem, potentially, to qualify under other criteria. When might they be added to the green list, and will they stay there until a variant of concern has been properly identified?
One thing I know for sure is that it is very difficult to give guarantees about any countries staying on the green list forever. That is how I ended up going to Spain and coming back two or three days later, after I had myself put it in the no-fly category, as it was at the time. However, I can tell my hon. Friend for sure that both the Canaries and the Greek islands were looked at in the last review. The fact that they did not qualify, as my hon. Friend rightly identifies, is a matter not simply of their infection rates, but the other criteria clearly set out by the JBC and available to him and others on the website. It is more likely to be to do, for example, with their ability to sequence the genome. We are working hard with countries across the world, particularly holiday destinations, to let them know what would be required, and we welcome further contact from them for them to be able to understand the system we are applying.
The Secretary of State will no doubt agree with me that the support packages provided by the Government—furlough, grant packages, low interest loans—have been essential in supporting businesses and industry through the pandemic. With the continued impact of covid-19 on the aviation and travel industry, can the Secretary of State outline what representation he has made to the Chancellor on the part of the travel industry for the extension of furlough and a much-needed specific tailored grant support scheme to be provided to sustain jobs and protect the future of this industry?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about how essential the package has been to date, and my conversations with the Chancellor are of course, as with all Cabinet Ministers, ongoing.
While we all have huge sympathy for travel companies with very little income, what action is the Secretary of State going to take to help people such as my recently widowed constituent who has had no refund for the holiday she was due to have with her husband, and not even an acknowledgement of receipt of her husband’s death certificate?
I am very sorry to hear about that particular case. I have been putting pressure on the whole sector to do the right thing, and to provide either vouchers or refunds where people require them. An essential part of being able to get travel back together is that people feel, when they book, that they would be able to rebook, should they need to do so for coronavirus reasons. I am not familiar with the individual case, but I would be very happy to follow it up for my hon. Friend.
Throughout the pandemic, the Transport Secretary has treated the travel industry as an afterthought—delaying decisions, making vague promises, creating chaos and confusion. Nearly 200,000 jobs have been lost or are at risk, and countless well-established high street agencies are now boarded up. Over a year ago, the Government promised a sector-specific support package. He keeps referring to £7 billion, yet he knows that that was purely for the aviation industry, not for travel agencies. ABTA wrote to him just this week about the lack of support. Why has he failed to deliver for them?
I have to say that that is a rather disingenuous thing to say about a Government who have provided furlough for absolutely everybody in every sector, including the ones the hon. Lady identifies. The support that the Chancellor has provided has been incredibly generous. I keep very closely in touch with travel agents, in my own constituency and across the country, and I understand the pressures they have been under. No one can pretend that it has been easy or straightforward, but I strenuously disagree with the hon. Lady if she is saying that that support has not been there, because the very fact that we are having this discussion demonstrates the extent to which we have been out there working to make sure that people are supported through this crisis.
I know that virus detection equipment from Kromek in Sedgefield is being trialled at both Newcastle and Teesside airports at the moment, and we hope it will be a valuable tool in the future. While I appreciate the sacrifices being made by our whole population to shield the most vulnerable and keep our NHS from being overwhelmed this year, I do not believe that economic growth and business should be held back until every adult is able to travel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although those not fully vaccinated may find it frustrating, we need to open up international travel for those who are fully vaccinated and safe to kickstart the rebuilding of the travel economy, for both businesses such as Mel’s Travel, a recently opened travel agency in Ferryhill, and workers in places such as Teesside airport? Where testing is required, the costs need to be reduced very substantially, especially for children.
The good news is that costs have been coming down, really quite dramatically, in the past couple of months. I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm and anxiety to get the sector open up as quickly as possible.
Just this morning, the Department for Transport snuck out the news that senior business executives will be able to dodge the quarantine rules relating to the amber list. I am sure the Secretary of State will want to take this opportunity to advise the House of the medical miracle that means that the wealthiest in society are unable to contract or, indeed, transmit covid-19. Or perhaps he can tell us what we already know: that on the watch of the Tories, it is simply one rule for the super-rich and another rule for the rest of us.
What a load of nonsense. I expect that the hon. Gentleman does not want to see—just taking a random example—the thousands of jobs created in car plants, just because of his vindictive and really very narrow view of how the world should operate. It is absolutely ridiculous. Anybody who is able to come to this country, for whatever reason, will be under very strict restrictions. They will require testing and they will be able to carry out only that specific piece of business. To my mind, if this helps thousands of people to keep their jobs and get new jobs, it is well worth while.
I am particularly concerned about travel to France. My delegation to the Council of Europe, most of whom have been double-vaccinated, and despite having diplomatic status themselves, are having to wait to represent the UK in person until France has gone green. What changes does my right hon. Friend anticipate that could make our travel easier?
I am most anxious to enable my hon. Friend to travel to the Council of Europe, and I will undertake to speak to my opposite number, Jean-Baptiste Djebarri, to find out what can be done to encourage a regime that enables travel to take place more easily, but we are having to work with what is available to us at the moment. As France also has a traffic light system in place, I will do my best to ensure that the two of us can help that visit to take place.
I thank the Secretary of State for his responses. It is very difficult to know all the answers to these questions.
There have been mixed messages, with amber or green travel acceptable for some countries in the EU, while Germany says that the EU should get together and prevent UK nationals from travelling. The USA has stated that UK citizens may not travel to the States before August and may not be able to do so for a period of time after that, causing much uncertainty. Will the Secretary of State tell those who book holidays and then have them cancelled, or those who are on holiday and then have to quarantine on their return, just when there will be a direct, honest and clear strategy? With great respect, I have to tell him that, at this moment, my constituents do not know what they can or should do when it comes to booking an overseas holiday.
The reality of the situation is that this virus just does not give us those answers. I wish it would. I hope the hon. Gentleman can see that, through the combination of the traffic light system and the forthcoming double-vaccination system—so that it is not only the place but the individual that can be looked at—we will get to a position where people are able to travel more freely than they have been up to this point. However, I have to remind the House that we are still living through a global pandemic, and things are not quite so straightforward as has been suggested in one or two of the interventions, although not that of the hon. Gentleman.
I will now suspend the House briefly so that arrangements can be made for the next item of business.