Public Health

– in the House of Commons at 12:16 pm on 26th April 2021.

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Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary 12:16 pm, 26th April 2021

I beg to move,

That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, International Travel) (England) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 150), dated 12 February 2021, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12 February 2021, be revoked.

The House meets as the UK reaches a critical moment in our battle against the coronavirus. In the past year, the British people have shown remarkable fortitude in the face of this deadly threat and made extraordinary sacrifices to protect our NHS and save lives. The roll-out of the vaccine is now giving real hope to people that there is light at the end of this long tunnel. For that, we give thanks to the scientific excellence that enabled the vaccine to be developed so quickly, while we are indebted to the remarkable work of our NHS, military, local government, volunteers and all those frontline workers who have worked tirelessly on the roll-out. But amid this sense of optimism we know that very real dangers remain from this deadly and unpredictable virus, and one of the key threats is the importation of new strains that could threaten the efficacy of those vaccines. As restrictions loosen and people start to interact more, the opportunity for variants to spread becomes far greater. That is why protecting our borders against emerging strains of covid is such a vital challenge, and I am afraid it is a challenge that the Government are failing miserably.

That is why today we are taking this unusual step of debating Government measures that have been in place for months. I make it clear that it is not our intention to divide the House or to vote these measures down, because having them in place is better than nothing at all, but the verdict on the Government’s approach to quarantine is damning. They have failed to heed warnings that their inadequate system leaves the door open to new variants of covid, and the consequences are deeply worrying. Sadly, this is in keeping with the Government’s approach to protecting our borders against covid from the very start of the pandemic, with no formal quarantine until June of last year, no testing at the border until this year, and no hotel quarantining until 15 February—and then only a half-baked system. For months, Labour Members have been calling for a comprehensive hotel quarantine system to guard against variants reaching these shores and undermining the huge collective effort to defeat this virus.

As islands, we should have a natural advantage in guarding against bringing the virus into the country. Yet in the early days we allowed millions of travellers to enter the country—23 million between 1 January and 31 March last year—while cases of covid were rocketing across Europe. Millions of people coming into the UK with no tests and no formal quarantine requirements will remain a terrible case study for this Government’s approach of doing too little too late, lurching from one crisis to another, devoid of strategy. It is not as if Ministers were not told: constituents were travelling to our ports and airports, raising the lack of checks and tests from the start.

Of course I accept that dealing with a pandemic is hugely challenging, but the inability to protect our borders is a systemic failing. That failure to plan has made the current quarantine system ineffective and frankly dangerous. By extending the red list to only 40 countries, the Government are leaving the door wide open for new variants to enter the UK. On 1 February we gave MPs the opportunity to vote for a comprehensive hotel quarantine system and a sector support deal for the aviation sector, which Labour has been calling on the Government to introduce for months. The Government again refused to do what was necessary to protect our borders against covid.

There are a number of key reasons why a limited list is an ineffective strategy. Labour Members have set out those reasons, and sadly the warnings have come to pass. First, the hard truth is that we have no certainty about where the next dangerous covid strain will emerge. The thoughts of the whole House will, I am sure, be with the people of India, given the heart-breaking scenes we have seen. Countries not on the red list could have new variants in circulation that are spread by travellers to the UK before they are recognised and acted on. That is exactly what happened with the variant from India, which was classed as a variant under investigation in the UK only last week. Warning No.1 was ignored, and it came to pass.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. How long does he propose that his regime would be in place? By worrying about potential variants coming from overseas, he seems effectively to be arguing for a system that will be in place forever, or at least until every other country is vaccinated. What is his position?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary

No, I am not suggesting for a moment that such a system should be in place forever, and clearly there has to be scientific evidence about that. However, we certainly need to be at a more advanced stage of our own roll-out before we give such consideration, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. The comprehensive hotel quarantine system should already have been in place.

The second weakness in the current position is that there are countries with significant outbreaks of the South African and Brazilian variants that are not even on the red list. We understand that the recent South African strain discovered in south London came to the UK via a traveller from an African country not on the red list. Warning No. 2 was ignored, and it came to pass. We know that people travelling to the UK on connecting journeys from red list countries have been mixing with people from non-red list countries on planes and in airports, creating dangerous opportunities for cross-infection. We have seen that in scenes from airports in recent months. Warning No. 3 was ignored, and it came to pass.

The Government try to say that their quarantine measures are tough, but the reality suggests otherwise. It is not just the Opposition giving these warnings. Minutes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on 21 January show that Ministers were told

“that reactive, geographically targeted travel bans cannot be relied upon to stop importation of new variants…due to the time lag between the emergence and identification of variants of concern, and the potential for indirect travel via a third country.”

When the director general of Border Force gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, he set out a damning statistic that of the 15,000 people entering the country each day, only around 1% were entering hotel quarantine. That leaves 99% of visitors entering the country with virtually no controls. It is no use the Government saying that other quarantine measures in place are working, because their own figures show that just three in every 100 people quarantining have been successfully contacted. It is a record of negligence that leaves the doors open.

We know things are in a dire state when a video exists of the Home Secretary speaking against her own quarantine policy, and even the implementation of the half-baked measures we have now has been beset by mismanagement. It took 18 days after the announcement on 27 January for hotel quarantine to begin—more time lost. Even now, I hear reports from colleagues about mismanagement of the system—people unable to book in, poor service, lack of support for disabled people, and exceptions not working as they should for people in difficult circumstances. Then there is the Government’s glacial pace of adding countries to the red list.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

May I probe a bit further the point raised by my right hon. Friend Mr Harper about the regime Nick Thomas-Symonds is proposing? The right hon. Gentleman said he would like to see our domestic vaccine programme a little further advanced and mentioned the figure of 99%. Let me give him another 99% figure: groups 1 to 9 on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation list account for 99% of those who are hospitalised and then die from covid. Given that we have already vaccinated those groups and that by the end of July we will have offered a vaccination to the whole adult population, what more does he want?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary

It is clearly about our own vaccination roll-out, but it is also about vaccination rates around the world, as the hon. Gentleman knows. However, I point out to him and to his right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean that this system should already have been in place, and I have been arguing for it for several months. I had the same debate with the Minister two months ago, back in February.

I think people watching this debate will be staggered to discover that travellers from India were required to isolate in hotels only from Friday, at a time when India, sadly, is in the midst of a devastating wave, with the highest recorded daily cases of covid anywhere in the world. The stakes for these failures are incredibly high. We have seen outbreaks of variants from South Africa, Brazil and India here in the UK. Until now, strict lockdown conditions are likely to have helped to halt the spread, but as lockdowns lift that handbrake comes off. The Government’s blasé attitude was summed up by the Prime Minister himself when he predicted that a third wave from Europe would

“wash up on our shores”.

It does not have to be this way. Throughout the crisis, the Government should have acted more decisively to secure our borders from the first emergence of the virus to failing to act swiftly on the devastating outbreak in India. In debating this statutory instrument, we are clear that the measures are nowhere near enough to provide the protections our country needs. The hopes of our country rely on guarding against vaccine-resistant strains of the virus reaching the UK, but the Government are just not delivering the protections we need. The Government must think again; they must bring forward the long-awaited sector support deal for our aviation industry and measures that deliver the comprehensive hotel quarantine system the country so desperately needs.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 12:28 pm, 26th April 2021

I agreed with Nick Thomas-Symonds when he thanked the scientists for their unfailing work to get the vaccine, the Army for its efforts to help to deliver the vaccine, and the NHS workers up and down the country for getting the vaccine into arms. From that point onward, however, there was not a great deal with which I could agree.

On 15 February, we introduced the managed quarantine service as a proportionate approach. From that date, arrivals from countries on the red list were subject to additional measures, including a requirement to quarantine in managed hotels. We have put in place a proportionate system, which allows those with residence rights and British and Irish nationals who live in the UK to return home, but manages the risk of importing new covid variants. We have signed contracts with 29 hotels to provide accommodation for those in quarantine; as and when demand increases, we can bring on additional hotel capacity. I visited one of the hotels—the Radisson Blu—and was reassured by what I saw. To make the scheme effective, we have introduced specific and limited exemptions to manage the quarantine, and those are for the continuation of essential services, but also in very limited compassionate and medical circumstances—for example, for those visiting a dying relative or with medical evidence that they cannot safely quarantine for 10 days in a hotel. I recognise the significant impact that requiring quarantine in hotels has on individuals, not least financially.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

Quite apart from the expense, my British Muslim constituents from Wycombe —one family in particular—who found themselves in a hotel were served bacon. That is obviously not halal food, and they found it difficult to get halal food. This of course is Ramadan, and they found it was difficult to be fed at the appropriate times for Ramadan. Will the Minister confirm that this is not the Government’s policy, and that the hotel should be doing much better for people at this time?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I would be happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that it is incumbent on hotels to support Muslim guests during their time there, but particularly at this time of Ramadan to be aware of their needs. Hotels will arrange for halal and vegetarian options to ensure that people’s needs are catered for, and if they are observing fasting during Ramadan, hotels will arrange to provide meals at suhoor and at iftar. They are also quite happy to support individuals who want to take their tests at an appropriate time of day as well—once fasting is broken, for example—and to provide extra clean towels in order to pray. I would be happy to speak to my hon. Friend afterwards and make sure that we can raise these matters immediately. However, I would urge his constituents and anybody else who is failing to get their requirements met to raise the matter, because it is important that we deal with them when people are in managed quarantine. This is a service, and our aim is to make it easy as possible for individuals.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Yes, I will, but then I would like to make a little progress.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Can the Minister explain to the House, when testing is done in hotels—there is now quite a good sample or quite a good group of people—what percentage of those tests over the 10-day period are picking up traces of covid, and when covid is identified, what percentage of those cases are the South African variant, the Indian variant or the Brazilian variant?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I will come on in my speech to how we are picking those up, and the fact that we have world-renowned genomic sequencing actually helps us in that. We have identified, in recent days, 132 cases of the Indian variant of interest. Obviously with those, as when we pick up any positive test on day 2, we are genomic sequencing them to ensure that we have the correct information, so that we can make sure that we are following up and contacting people if they are in quarantine at home. In a red list scenario, people are in a managed quarantine facility, and their period of isolation will be expected to start from then. For the exact differences, I will be happy to write to my hon. Friend, because I do not have all the different numbers for all the different variants on me at the moment.

As I have said, to make the scheme effective, we have made limited circumstances where exemptions can be had. On the impact financially, for those who need it there are deferred payment plans. Alongside managed quarantine, we have also introduced mandatory testing, meaning travellers are required to pre-book tests before they travel. Testing takes place on day two and day eight, and allows us, as I have said, to use our world-renowned genomic sequencing expertise to better track any new cases that might be brought into the country and detect new variants.

Travellers will have to have had a pre-departure test within 72 hours of flying, and carriers should not let individuals board without a correctly filled in passenger locator form, so that we know where people are travelling onward to, and when from a red list country, that they have booked their place in a managed quarantine facility or hotel. If the carrier does not do this, they will face fines via enforcement.

Each of the measures we have introduced adds another layer of protection against the transmission of the virus, reduces the risk of a new and dangerous strain being imported and keeps people safe. However, we do not take lightly adding any country to the red list, but keep things under constant review. In India, for example, there has been an extremely rapid rise in cases detected throughout April. Normally there is a high volume of travel between India and the UK. We have already seen 132 cases of the variant under investigation appear in the UK, and that is why we have acted. As the Prime Minister said:

“We stand side by side with India in the shared fight against COVID-19”,

and our thoughts and prayers are with them at what is the most incredibly difficult time.

These decisions are based on risk assessments produced from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which monitors the spread of variants of concern internationally. The risk assessments cover a range of factors for each country, including surveillance, genomic sequencing, in-country community transmission, evidence of exportation of new variants and travel connectivity. Informed by evidence, including JBC’s analysis and other relevant public health input information, decisions are taken by Ministers.

It is important to note—this probably goes to the comment made by my right hon. Friend Mr Harper—that countries are also removed from the list under our particular proposals. Portugal and Mauritius, for example, have been removed from the list to allow travel to commence following evidence showing that the risk of importing a variant of concern from those areas has reduced.

Speed of action where variants of concern are found in the community, with urgent tracing and investigation, can identify and rapidly control further transmission and the variant. We believe that the combination of strong border measures, managed quarantine, testing and enforcement remains the best way to effectively reduce the public health risk of importing variants of concern, as public safety is the driving force. We recognise that the additions to the red list have meant challenging times for the airport sector—a crucial sector to the economy—and businesses across the industry can draw on the unprecedented package of economic measures that we have put in place to support them.

I am grateful for the continued efforts of individuals, airline carriers, quarantine facilities, border forces and others to help us tackle the global pandemic by helping everyone follow the rules, protecting each other and saving lives. The Government objective is to see a safe and sustainable return to international travel for business and pleasure. The current border regimes will remain in place for the time being, as will the restrictions on outward-bound international travel, because at the moment we should not be going anywhere.

The global travel taskforce is developing a framework that will facilitate greater travel when the time is right. There is no single measure that mitigates the risk entirely, and each layer we have introduced helps to reduce the risk. The managed quarantine service is complemented by testing, and those measures have been put in place for all arrivals. The mandatory testing regime improves the efficacy of the post-travel isolation period for preventing onward transmission of those imported cases.

Given the incredible progress made on the vaccination programme, as well as the hard work of British people to bring down the rates, it is more important than ever that we continue to protect people with a strong approach. As the House knows, there are restrictions on travelling abroad from England, and the individual must have a justified reason, but there are those who feel we have not gone far enough and those who feel we have gone too far. That probably indicates that we are where we need to be.

However, our rationale for this policy remains clear: we must continue to be alert and able to take swift action to mitigate any negative impact on vaccine effectiveness from the risk of variants of concern and broader public health challenges. That also includes at airports. The right hon. Member for Torfaen asked me about keeping people separated. Every step is taken to reduce risk to minimise potential for passenger interaction, including tests before departure, social distancing, mandatory mask wearing, the cleaning of facilities and specific lanes to minimise any interaction between those who have come from red list countries and those who have come from amber list countries. A number of airports, including Britain’s busiest airport, Heathrow, have introduced additional measures to separate passengers from the red list ahead of the immigration hall in order to stop them mixing, so it is not fair on those who have been working so hard to produce a system that we can live and work with to say that they are not doing anything. I know this is difficult for families who have been impacted by the introduction of hotel quarantine. However, they are part of the national effort. While we learn more about variants of concern and potential new strains, it is right that we continue to take a cautious approach, allowing us to continue with the road map and move closer to a more normal, yet covid-tinged life.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 12:40 pm, 26th April 2021

I do not intend to detain the House for too long, but I have some questions, and I will explain to the Minister why I am raising them now. I think that they are in order. If I understand this correctly, the Government have indicated that, as of 17 May, more international travel may well be possible, subject to a review, and they have indicated that they will give people a week’s notice of those changes. Mr Deputy Speaker, you will have spotted that the date for that announcement to take place is when we are expecting the House to be prorogued before the state opening of Parliament, so this is probably the last opportunity—depending on whether we have Transport questions on Thursday—for Members to ask Ministers questions about the international travel regime before it might change. I happen to think it is important that those questions are asked in the House, rather than simply being left to be asked at a press conference.

Before I set out those questions, however, let me just follow up my question to Nick Thomas-Symonds, who opened the debate for the Labour party. He answered one of my questions, when I could not quite work out why Labour had tabled a motion to revoke these regulations. He confirmed that Labour does not intend to press that to a vote, which makes sense, but he did not really deal with the other question I asked or with the companion question that my hon. Friend Steve Brine asked. I pressed the right hon. Gentleman on how long he felt a tougher regime should be in place, and in answer to me he indicated that it should be dependent on our vaccination roll-out, whereas in answer to my hon. Friend, he seemed to suggest that it would depend on what was going on around the world.

The reason that I am labouring this point—I am going to press the Minister on it as well—relates to what the regime is trying to deliver. If this is about worrying about what is going on in the rest of the world—given that it is entirely possible, even with a fair wind, that we will not have vaccinated the adult population around the world until the end of next year, 2022—this whole travel regime could be in place for the rest of this year and the whole of next year, which has very significant implications. If, however, the regime is to stay in place until we have vaccinated every adult in this country, that would have very different implications, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester pointed out, as we will have offered every adult a vaccination by July.

My question to the Minister is: will she set out for the House what the Government’s current thinking is? She has indicated that the regime should stay in place for little while, but I note that the explanatory memorandum to these regulations reminds us that the overall international travel regulations will cease to have effect on 8 June this year. That is not far into the future, so the Government will have to make a decision about whether to allow those regulations to lapse on 8 June, effectively resulting in no controls on international travel or, whether—as I suspect is more likely—to bring in further regulations, in which case they will need to be clear about how long they wish those regulations to remain in place.

The exchange between myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and the right hon. Member for Torfaen illustrated this question. Is this about how well we have rolled out vaccinations in the UK and therefore protected our population from covid? The Minister will know that we already have in place very good genomic sequencing, and as I understand it, all the manufacturers and developers are ready to tweak the vaccines they have already developed, if the genomic sequencing indicates any need to do so. At the moment, although these variants are called variants of concern, none of them evades the vaccine. My understanding is that the vaccines are effective against all of them, certainly in terms of preventing serious disease, hospitalisation and death. There is, I understand, a question mark about the extent to which the vaccines protect against the South African variant as far as mild disease is concerned, but if it enables mild disease to take hold then I am not sure that is something about which we need to be enormously concerned.

I press that point because if the Government are going to take the view that they are so worried about a potential variant that does not yet exist developing somewhere in the world and undermining the efficacy of our vaccine position, then it seems to me that that means we will have to keep the regulations in place at least until the whole of the world is vaccinated and the virus is driven down to a very low level globally. That may not be until the end of next year, on a best-case scenario. That has really quite dramatic consequences for the airline industry, the travel industry and the 3 million people who work in it, and the freedoms of our population, so if the Minister could say a little bit about that, that would be helpful.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

Perhaps it would be helpful if the Government were to say what level of reduced efficacy they would consider to be a cause for concern. Any flu vaccine that I ever purchased when I was doing the Minister’s job had about 60% efficacy. The three vaccines being used at the moment are way ahead of that, so even a reduction in efficacy of 10% would still significantly outpace the flu vaccine we currently roll out. Would it be helpful if the Government said at which level it would drop to where the indicators would flash red?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

That is a very good question. More widely, it would be helpful if the Government and their scientific advisers had a slightly better conversation with the public about variants and the impact they may have on vaccine efficacy, rather than this constant—I accept this is not always how they intend it, but it is the way it gets reported—conversation about scary variants or mutants.

Actually, at the moment—I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—all the variants we are aware of are dealt with by the existing vaccine portfolio to a greater or lesser degree. What we are concerned about is what may come along in the future, but we have a very good system in this country at least. My understanding is that none of the vaccine manufacturers yet feel they have to change the design of their vaccines to deal with any variant we are currently aware of anywhere in the world.

One further point I want to make is that how we name variants—the Kent variant, the South African variant, the Indian variant—is not actually terribly helpful. It gives the impression to the public that the variants only come from specific geographic parts of the world and if only we put in a sufficiently robust border arrangement, we could keep them out. The reality, of course, is that those variants could occur anywhere in the world, including here in the United Kingdom. I think I am right in saying that the best advice that exists is that even an incredibly tough border regime can, at best, only slow the transmission of viruses, rather than keep them out forever. At some point we will have to decide when we will allow travel to get back to normal, which is why I asked whether that would be about how the world is vaccinated or how the United Kingdom is vaccinated. I do not think that question has been sufficiently answered.

Specifically on the regulations, there is reference to the ports by which people are allowed to enter the United Kingdom. I want to ask one or two questions about ports of entry. The Minister answered some of this, in response to the concerns raised by the shadow Home Secretary, when talking about the efforts that Heathrow in particular has put in place to try to keep people separate. However, it is the case, having looked at pictures, and listened to the challenges faced by airport operators and the first-hand testimony of people travelling, that people from different countries, including red list countries and non-red list countries, are kept in airports for significant periods of time in a way that is not particularly well socially distanced. That is clearly a risk, if we then insist that they will have to spend time in quarantine, when they have just spent a considerable period of time next to people from completely different countries.

I mention that because I wonder what plans the Government have in place, as they think about increasing the volume of international travel, to automate the process. The Minister will be aware—I am, as a former Immigration Minister—that one of the ways in which we deal with the volumes going through airports is to have e-gates to automate the process of checking people’s travel documents. In order to deal with a significant increase in volume, the testing information on the passenger locator form will, I think, have to be put into some digital form, if airports are to have any hope of dealing with the volume of passengers. Given a significant increase in passenger volumes, even with an increase in the number of Border Force staff, in no way will airports be able to cope with checking all that information and dealing with the volume of flights without becoming absolutely overwhelmed. If the Government might change the position in just a couple of weeks’ time, will the Minister say how far forward those plans are?

My final point—you will be pleased to know, Mr Deputy Speaker—is about vaccine passports. I am not at all persuaded of domestic vaccine passports. They run a great risk of creating a two-tier society. Also, once we have vaccinated the adult population, in particular with the take-up rate among the groups so far of more than 95%, I am not at all sure what a domestic vaccine passport gets us once we have reached that level of vaccination coverage.

It seems to me that vaccine passports would be a big mistake. As the Paymaster General, who responded to the debate last Thursday, said to me, domestic vaccine passports and international ones are quite separate and should be treated separately, and it would be a mistake to run them together. I was heartened to hear that, and I hope that is the position the Government will stick to.

Internationally, however, some questions arise from the regime put in place here. I am much more relaxed about international vaccine passports than about domestic ones. We have already have precedents—people have to have yellow fever vaccinations to go to specific countries—and of course if a country requires people to be vaccinated to enter it, it is entirely up to it what rules are set for people who want to visit that country.

My first question for the Minister is because I understand that the World Health Organisation states in its most up-to-date policy paper of 5 February—the latest one on its website—that it does not recommend that countries have proof of covid vaccination to exist before they allow people to travel. The reason it sets that out is that it fears that that would in effect incentivise countries that had already had a good roll-out of vaccine to hog the global supplies for themselves, setting up some unfortunate sets of incentives. That is the organisation’s latest position. Will the Minister say whether the British Government will go along with that position?

I have two questions. First, if the UK Government ease up on the travel rules in May, is their position that they will require foreign nationals to be vaccinated before they come to the United Kingdom, or will the Government stick to the testing regime? Secondly, what steps have the Government put in place, working with the International Air Transport Association and other international bodies, for any kind of international vaccine passport? Perhaps the Minister will update the House on the Government’s plans.

I raise that because, if the Government announce a change to the international position in the next couple of weeks, knowing what plans are under way—and, I hope, this House being asked for its authorisation to implement such measures—would be very welcome. With those few questions, I conclude my remarks.

Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Shadow Minister (Education) 12:54 pm, 26th April 2021

I want to highlight quickly how our poorly drawn-up covid self-isolation and quarantine regulations are causing difficulties for UK businesses in competition with EU companies that are following different regulations. That is putting UK businesses at a disadvantage.

I was contacted by David Fletcher from GEV Group, which has its headquarters in my constituency. It is a market leader in critical field repair services to the wind energy industry, specialising in wind turbine blade repair, and it exports its services all over Europe, the US and the far east. Of course, it has had to reorganise and reprioritise services due to the pandemic, but in some cases, as hon. Members can imagine, where wind turbine blades have suffered significant damage, that cannot wait.

The company of course understands the need for covid security and taking precautions, but it finds itself at a significant disadvantage to its European competitors, which are operating under a different approach to travel for frontier workers. Essentially, the EU guidelines provide specific instructions for posted and frontier workers, noting that health screening must be carried out under the same conditions as for nationals exercising the same occupation.

GEV informs me that the UK guidelines have a much looser definition of frontier workers and do not appear to have considered all the likely circumstances they will face. The key issue for GEV is the line in the UK guidance that states that travel must be on a weekly basis. Its technicians typically travel on a fortnightly rotation, as they are stationed offshore on a vessel for that duration. That means that, upon return, they have to observe the eight-day quarantine period, which has led to most of the company’s workforce not wanting to travel. As a consequence, it is losing work to its European counterparts.

I urge the Minister to look at realigning the rules with the EU so that GEV and other UK companies that export services can remain competitive. I am more than happy to write to her on this matter, and I really hope that this simple issue can be resolved very quickly.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 12:56 pm, 26th April 2021

It is late and I will be brief. Over the Easter weekend, I walked through a tragic situation concerning a constituent that reflects the insufficiency of the regulations before the House this evening. I certainly echo many of the concerns that have already been expressed in the debate.

My constituent could not travel back to the UK to see her mother because her mother was in a care home. However, her mother’s condition suddenly deteriorated, so she raced back to see her. As she had taken the two vaccines and had already tested negative, she travelled through hub airports. In the first, she was completely isolated from other passengers; in the second, she mingled with red and green passengers. She then touched down in the UK.

Sadly, my constituent’s mother passed away. My constituent had to go to a quarantine hotel, whereas many of the people she had been mingling with just hours before were free to travel wherever they wanted. When she arrived—obviously, she paid an extortionate amount for it—she was put in a poorly ventilated room and allowed out for only 20 minutes a day. She was in deep grief. She wanted to be at home with her father—isolating, absolutely—but that was denied. Over the Easter weekend, she had two appeals and private transport was arranged, but she could not leave that quarantine situation.

With regard to my constituent’s wellbeing, she felt imprisoned, with no support. When I raised the issue of support, all I was told was that she could be assessed for suicide. She was in deep grief. She needed to be with family, isolating as she was. The only concession I was given was that her father, who was also mourning, could travel to Birmingham from York and, at the full cost of £1,750, stay at the hotel for the full quarantine period. He had legal matters to deal with besides his grief. Other constituents have highlighted the lack of support around mental health.

My constituent is not a criminal, and she would follow all public health guidance required of her, including testing and whatever was needed by a local public health team. Her mother had just died, she was broken with grief, and no one had the capacity to find a solution, while others she met on her journey were free to go anywhere in the UK. That is why these regulations are not fit for purpose.

Further to that, my constituent was told that she would be able to go to the funeral, but if she was to do so, her father would have to drive for more than 12 hours to collect her and then return her, in the midst of his grief. That is not only dispassionate but dangerous—and she would be among 29 other people at the funeral, but she was not allowed to stay at home with just her father. Schedule B1A, paragraph 13, needs significant amendment. It is time to understand humanity and infection control. Both can be achieved, but that is not found in these regulations. So I urge the Government to get a grip of these really important issues and to get a heart.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 1:00 am, 26th April 2021

There were a considerable number of questions from my right hon. Friend Mr Harper. I will try to cover those that I heard, but he will forgive me if I write to him on the matters for which I do not have the immediate answers. Let me say as a slight cover-all that many of the things to which he alluded will be brought forward by the global travel taskforce when it starts to lay out the approach to restarting international travel safely, aligned with the domestic road map. I appreciate that he said he felt that this was his last chance to raise this issue while the House was sitting, because, given the dates, it is highly likely that that will happen while we are prorogued or shortly after. However, this is live and dynamic at the moment, and I can give him few answers on the specific questions he raised on the global taskforce and what it will say in three weeks’ time about future travel arrangements. Although I apologise for that, there is really nothing I can say to pre-empt that set of instructions as to how and when we are going to lift restrictions, and the use of a traffic light system, where countries will be categorised as red, amber or green, and how we deal with people in that space.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

Let us assume, based on the timings that have been announced, that the results of the global travel taskforce are going to be announced when the House is not sitting. May I get an assurance from the Minister, then, that on the first day after the state opening of Parliament that it is permitted to have a statement there will be a statement at that Dispatch Box by a Minister, so that we are able to ask questions about the results of the global travel taskforce? Will she assure me that that will take place at the earliest possible opportunity?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. I assure him that I will take that request back. As he knows, I cannot commit to that at the Dispatch Box.

My right hon. Friend asked which ports of entry people can fly into, why we have chosen those ports, whether we are extending them and what happens if someone from a red list country is booking in to arrive at a non-designated port. If someone has a pre-existing booking to a non-designated port, it is the individual’s responsibility to change it to a designated port. Carriers are not permitted to carry anyone who has been in a red list country in the previous 10 days to any port of entry other than those that are specified. Currently, those designated ports are clearly Heathrow, Gatwick, London City, Birmingham and Farnborough.

I ask Emma Hardy to write to me, but I gently say to her and to Rachael Maskell—I cannot discuss the specifics of the case of her constituent, for whom I have the greatest sympathy—that the challenge here is that their Front-Bench team are asking for stricter restrictions the whole time, across the piece. If all we then do is build more and more exemptions into the system, we will have a looser system than the one we are endeavouring to make sure is proportionate, delivers in a way that manages the arrivals from red zone countries, and has a degree of flexibility to ensure that as the system changes we can build countries back into travel and restrict others where there may be a flare-up.

It is right, as I have explained, that all these measures are kept under constant review. The combination of quarantine requirements for all international arrivals means that those arriving from countries presenting with the highest risk are asked to use the Government-approved hotel quarantine facilities. There is a robust testing regime prior to departure and then again on arrival. Enforcement is put in place if required. As we still have more to learn about the virus and, as my right hon. Friend said, more understanding to acquire, we must make sure that our approach is based on the best evidence, and that it is proportionate. That is the responsible approach to take to safeguard progress in defeating the virus and to make sure that we can all get back to some degree of normality.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

Before my hon. Friend sits down, may I press her on one further point? I accept that she cannot set out answers to my detailed questions until the global travel taskforce has presented its outcome and Ministers have made their decisions. The central question I did ask though requires a fairly wide policy decision. It may be that that will be decided by the global travel taskforce as well. Fundamentally, is our travel regime and how much protection we are going to have based on the extent to which we have vaccinated the British public, which is obviously proceeding at pace and suggests that we would be able to relax these measures sometime during the summer, or will it be based on the extent of the virus globally, which suggests, listening to some of the best voices on this, that we will be looking more towards the end of next year. That does not seem to me to depend on what the global travel taskforce is deciding. It possibly does, but perhaps she could furnish the House with an idea.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I do hate to disappoint my right hon. Friend, but I will have to do so once again. The answer to that question will appear with the global taskforce as we move into the coming months. In addition to that, there is a package that is linked to the work of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on passport certification. We want to have a coherent integrated system that provides a proportionate response as we move forward.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

On this point of coherence, I know that my hon. Friend cannot comment on the outcome of the taskforce, but does she agree that it is very important that, for all of these decisions on red listing, the evidence is clearly presented to the public so that they can see that countries are being treated fairly? Diasporas do bring with them some of their politics, and she will understand that, in particular, pairs of countries need to be seen to be treated fairly without any particular geopolitical preference. She will understand the point I am making, so can we always present to the public the evidence for the red listing?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

We always try to make sure that we present the evidence with the rationale behind what we are doing. Ultimately, the driving force behind what we are doing is to make sure that we keep our residents safe and that we help other countries to keep their residents safe. The way that I will finish is that, as we all know, until everyone is safe, none of us is safe.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary 1:09 am, 26th April 2021

I have already indicated that it is not my intention to push the motion to a vote. I simply thank everyone who has contributed to the debate, particularly my hon. Friend Emma Hardy and my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, who spoke very movingly about the situation faced by her constituent. I urge the Minister to look at the system of exemptions, the system of booking, the standard of service and the support for people in hotel quarantine. I also once again urge the Government to change course and introduce a comprehensive system of hotel quarantine.

Question negatived.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

For those leaving the Chamber—please do so in a covid-friendly way at 10 minutes past 1 in the morning.