I beg to move,
That this House
believes that there must be a clear, simply understood and proper hotel quarantine scheme in operation at the UK border to minimise the risk of introduction of new variants into the UK;
calls on the Government to immediately scrap the Amber List category of the Government’s Traffic Light System for travel and place all of those countries currently on the Amber List onto the Red List, whilst maintaining a tightly managed Green List, so as not to risk undermining the UK’s successful NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme;
further calls on the Government to work with international partners to introduce an international vaccine passport allowing for the safe resumption of travel, to publish all data on international travel arrivals, and to provide details of the decision-making process on the Traffic Light System;
and reiterates the need for a sector-specific support deal for aviation.
I rise to speak to the motion in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, it gives me no pleasure whatsoever to be standing here yet again calling for this Government to act to secure our borders against the threat of new variants of covid. The news that the Prime Minister has announced a delay in the reopening on
The fallout from that chain of events is enormous for pubs and restaurants that were desperate to open up properly again; for friends planning group holidays that have been ruined; for our towns and city centres hoping to have been bustling with workers again; for concerts, sports stadiums, theatres and festivals that were supposed to be filling up; and for families looking forward to great big get-togethers, celebrating milestones, birthdays, children being born and marriages. I want my thoughts today to be with all those who have seen their wedding plans turned upside down. I realise of course that weddings are legally allowed, but with singing and dancing banned, I do not think they will look like the parties that many of us know weddings to be.
This will be a desperate blow for so many people, and the cost of this delay will not just be felt in people’s disappointment and ruined plans. UKHospitality says that a delay of a month will cost its sector £3 billion in sales, with warnings that 200,000 jobs in the sector could go. Some 5,000 gigs are set to be cancelled at a cost of £500 million. Let us be absolutely clear: the responsibility for breaking the promise of freedom day lies squarely with this Conservative Government. The Prime Minister apparently says that his political hero is the mayor from “Jaws”, keeping the beaches open while swimmers were getting attacked. The truth is that he has let the shark take a huge chunk out of the British economy this week. People across the country have every right to be angry about being let down so badly.
Madam Deputy Speaker, through you perhaps I can echo the strong words of Mr Speaker yesterday in condemning the shoddy way in which the Government have treated this House on an announcement of national importance. Our role is to represent our constituents, and the Prime Minister failing to make the statement to this House or to offer himself for questioning was, frankly, an insult.
Everyone knows that managing the pandemic is a huge challenge for Governments across the world, and of course the British public can forgive mistakes, but what is unforgivable is making the same mistakes time and time again, putting the health and prosperity of the British people at risk. As an island, our border protections should have been one of our strengths. Instead, they have been an Achilles heel. Time and again, I have stood here and warned that the UK Government’s border measures are far too weak, yet from the very outset of the pandemic, Government actions at the border have been too little, too late.
At the outset of the pandemic, just 273 people out of the 18 million that arrived here by air were formally quarantined between
“a lot of the cases in the UK didn’t come from China…they came from European imports and the high level of travel into the UK at that time.”
There is no point in the Government claiming that they have the toughest border protections in the world. In that same month, March 2020, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada and New Zealand restricted entry to residents and citizens and introduced a 14-day quarantine for all arrivals. It could be done, and it was done; it just was not done by this Government. I wrote to the Home Secretary in April 2020 to ask her to learn the lessons from that, but still the UK remained an international outlier. In May 2020, the UK stood with only Iran, Luxembourg and the US Virgin Islands in having no border protection measures in place, and that, I am afraid, has been the story of the pandemic at the borders.
This Conservative Government have been late to formal quarantining. It was not introduced until June 2020, and even then only 3% of the people meant to be quarantining were successfully checked. The Government have been late to mandatory border testing, which was not introduced until January 2021, and late to start hotel quarantining, which started in February 2021 and even then covered only 1% of arrivals. They have been late and lacking in strategy, with no proper plan, just lurching from one position to another. It is no wonder that the border policy of this Government has been a tale of systematic failure. The Government did not so much leave the back door open to covid and its variants as leave the front door open the whole time.
Let me pay tribute to Border Force, the police and our wider law enforcement community. They have worked heroically. The gaps in our defences that have existed and do exist are not their fault, but the fault of Ministers. That chronic failure has been crystallised in the utter mess over hotel quarantining. On
“Labour is calling for decisive action today through a comprehensive hotel quarantine policy, and that would mean a policy of enforced quarantine restrictions on arrivals…Failing to adopt that policy risks undermining the huge gains that have been made by the vaccine roll-out, threatening life and hope.”—[Official Report,
I then asked:
“How on earth can the Government be assured that the measures will prevent emerging strains from countries outside those on the red list? The truth is that the Government cannot answer that question. As a result, the policy is fatally flawed. A comprehensive quarantine policy would give us the best possible chance of preventing a new strain from undermining the astonishing collective sacrifice of the British people.”—[Official Report,
It gives me no pleasure to say it, but that new strain is exactly what came to pass.
How long does the right hon. Gentleman think his policy of scrapping the amber list and moving everything to red, hotel quarantine, would last? He says it is to deal with the risk of new variants being introduced into the UK. That risk could last indefinitely, so does that mean that his border closure would, by its very nature, also be indefinite?
Absolutely not. I have said, and it says in the motion, that there should be a growing green list now. The reason we are unable to grow the green list to the extent that we want to is the danger being created by the ambiguous amber list, by people mixing at airports, and by the mixed messaging from the Government about whether people can actually travel. It is not the fault of the people who are travelling. It is the fault of this Government with their mixed messaging.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister to take action. The Prime Minister promised some of the toughest border measures in the world—but we had another example of what defines this Government: overpromising and underdelivering. Instead, they have let people down and delivered a complete mess. It was the Government’s short-termism and refusal to take tough decisions in time that has led to us ending up in this situation. When we called in February for comprehensive hotel quarantine measures in February, the Government Members did not even turn up for the vote—not one of them is shown has having voted in the Lobby.
Let me be clear. We want to get back to safe international travel as soon as possible, but we have to protect the gains of the past 14 months, which have been secured by the sacrifices of the British people. Yes, the comprehensive quarantine policy is tough politically; it is a message a lot of people did not want to hear, but it was necessary to keep variants out. Advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was that it was the only measure that would work, and the Government’s chief scientific adviser said:
“You’ve got to go hard, early and broader if you’re going to get on top of this. Waiting and watching simply doesn’t work.”
Yet the Government ignored the warnings, time and again.
Because nobody can provide 100% protection against anything—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Conservative Members jeer, but it is about time they took a bit of responsibility for the failure of their Government. They argue with me about comprehensive hotel quarantine, but not one of them had the courage to vote against it in the Lobby in February. They have completely failed to put in place every possible measure that they should have implemented. That is a comprehensive failure.
Last night at the Dispatch Box, the Health Secretary claimed that he took a decision based on the evidence available to him at the time. On
Last night, I heard the Health Secretary claim that we on the Labour Benches called for India to be added to the red list with the benefit of hindsight. What nonsense! If the Conservatives had listened to us on the Labour Benches and voted with us, protections would have been in place from February. I have the Hansard, and the Health Secretary can check the facts in Hansard, if he wants to. Let us hear no more about hindsight. We want Ministers to show some judgment and foresight.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the Government listening to the Labour party and taking your advice, but had we done that, last year we would have listened to the shadow Transport Secretary, Jim McMahon, when the Labour party was calling for the Government’s quarantine measures to be lessened. Had we listened to you, we would have had fewer restrictions at the border than we have at the minute.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that, because he is talking about the Government’s own failure. Last summer, the shadow Transport Secretary, my hon. Friend Jim McMahon, and I were speaking about the fact that 14-day quarantining was unnecessary if we had testing up and running. We could have had a test and release system with release after 10 days. We were highlighting the complete failure of the Government on testing, so I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman gave me the chance to make that point.
I give Ministers another warning. As we speak, countries with large numbers of delta variant cases are on the amber list, which has been proven clearly not to work in stopping infections reaching the UK. Thailand and Vietnam are on the amber list, despite having rocketing cases and, potentially, yet another new variant that has already entered the country. Thousands more are on flights coming and going from holiday destinations across the world. Again, we put the Government on notice: put in place proper covid protection at the border to end the culture of failure that has been their record so far.
That is why, today, we are forcing a vote again on securing our borders. The Government must take clear steps to avoid the disastrous mistakes of the past: scrap the amber list and move it on to the red list with the proper hotel quarantine system; continue to have the green list, which can grow safely over time; work with our international partners to introduce a universal, worldwide, standardised international vaccine passport; and introduce the long-awaited sector support deal for the aviation sector, called for many times by my hon. Friend the shadow Transport Secretary, saving jobs and ensuring environmental protection.
Stobart Air, which has connectivity between Belfast City and many cities across the UK mainland, is on the edge of collapse—indeed, that will happen. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that it is important to give the aviation sector the help that it needs to ensure, when we come back, that there will be something that we can build upon?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to see a proper ambitious support package, with the money properly targeted to meet its aims.
Appalling hire-and-rehire tactics should be outlawed—that practice has no place in our country—and we need staff salaries protected, with a clear commitment to workers’ right. Let us also see a commitment to cleaner fuels, UK-based suppliers, tax paid here in the UK and compliance with consumer rights regulations. Inaction—continuing inaction—is not the answer. Those are steps that could be taken right now. They would reduce the risk of yet more variants reaching the UK.
When people are working so hard to contain the delta variant at home, this Government run the risk of bringing in yet more from abroad. The irresponsibility has to stop. Up and down the country, people have done their bit. They have given up their freedoms, queued up for the vaccine, given up precious time with loved ones, abandoned planned family events and sacrificed attendance at funerals. They have done all they can to protect the country; the least they can expect in return is that Members of Parliament will do the same by supporting our motion to ensure that we can secure our borders from covid variants, allowing lives to return to normal in the near future.
I welcome today’s debate on a matter that is, rightly, of significant public interest. It is slightly disappointing to hear Nick Thomas-Symonds being found out by my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho for really not understanding how viruses spread. If we are going to live with this virus, there will be variants. He has been asked over and over again, “What would you do?”, and unfortunately he has been found failing. Throughout the pandemic this Government have taken all the steps necessary to protect the public and help prevent the spread of the virus.
Well, we shall see. As of today, 30 million-plus people have had two doses. We are at 72 million doses in the United Kingdom, and we aim in the next four weeks to offer the double dose to two thirds of all adults. That is delivery, my friend.
Sometimes taking all the steps necessary means making difficult decisions—not that the Labour party understands these things—such as the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday of the decision, informed by the data, to pause the move to step 4 of the road map. We are clear that the public expect a clear message that these decisions are based on the science. Public health has always been our No. 1 priority and we will not risk throwing away our hard-won achievements through the vaccination programme that have only been possible through the work of the British people.
Being led by the data and the science has also informed our approach at the border. The Government have put in place some of the most stringent covid border measures in the world. Each of the measures that we have put in place—informed by the latest scientific advice—adds layers of protection against importing the virus, including through reducing the risk of importing new variants.
May I just praise the work that my hon. Friend is doing? It has been an incredible journey to vaccinate this nation. With his leadership, the team that he has put together have done a massive job. We all know that the way to get out of this dilemma is to vaccinate, so I pay tribute to him for what he has done.
We have spoken much about the Indian variant. Would my hon. Friend take a second or two to talk about a new variant that is coming on the horizon—the echo variant—which has been seen in Nepal?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right that we have to remain vigilant. Part of the reason why the decision was made to place countries such as Portugal on the red list, unfortunately, was because we are seeing further mutations from the Indian variant to the variant that has first been spotted in Nepal. That is why we have invested so heavily in our genome sequencing capability and capacity in the United Kingdom. In many instances, we are able to identify variants in travellers from those countries before those countries actually identify them.
The really important point to land is that no single measure can remove the risk entirely; I think it is on this point where the real division lies between the two sides of the House. However, each layer of protection that we have introduced helps to reduce the risk and protect the hard-won progress that we have seen, including for our world-leading vaccine programme. Let me set out for the House some of those measures, which include our clear r assessment of the risk posed from overseas, as set out in the traffic light system; our approach upstream at the border, including the vital work carried out by Border Force staff; our robust in-country measures around enforcement and managed quarantine; and the world-leading scientific expertise informing our entire approach.
The traffic light system essentially categorises countries based on risk, in order to protect public health and the vaccine rollout from variants of covid. The Joint Biosecurity Centre produces risk assessments of countries and territories. Decisions on red, amber or green list assignment and associated border measures are taken by Ministers, who take into account the JBC risk assessment alongside wider public health factors.
The JBC’s risk assessment includes a number of critical factors, including the general epidemiological situation in a country, and the presence and prevalence of known variants of concern, or new variants, as my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood has just pointed out. Genomic surveillance capability is critical to the second issue, and the reality is that many countries cannot match the UK’s world-leading capability in that field. We have been open about this approach, and indeed a summary of the JBC’s methodology has been published on gov.uk, alongside the key data that supports Ministers’ decisions.
The rules are firm but fair for passengers arriving in the UK. Red country arrivals must quarantine in a managed quarantine facility for 10 days and take tests on day 2 and day 8. Amber country arrivals must self-isolate in their own accommodation and have a test booked for day 2 and day 8. For green country arrivals, no quarantine is required, but they must have a test on or before day 2 after arrival. All passengers from red, amber and green countries must have a negative pre-departure test. In the interest of continuing to protect public health, the public are advised against leisure travel to countries categorised as amber and red.
Upstream, the success of our travel system relies on everyone playing their part. Carriers have a key role here and are under a legal obligation to check that each passenger has proof of a negative test. They are liable for a fine of up to £2,000 for not complying. The Civil Aviation Authority has issued 630 fines since
Border Force works tirelessly to check all passengers coming into the country. It is continuing to ensure that it has the right level of resources to carry out its duties, maintaining border security and public health, while trying to minimise wait times at the borders at all times. To put that in context, we currently have the highest level of staffing since the 2012 Olympics.
We have been taking steps to significantly improve and speed up processes at the border by digitising a number of checks, including the passenger locator form so that it can be used at e-gates. Those automated checks happen behind the scenes, meaning that people may not be asked to show their passenger locator form to a Border Force officer, but that does not mean that the checks are not happening. However, we have been clear with the public and industry that queues and wait times will be longer if passengers have not completed the necessary requirements to enter the United Kingdom.
Our border measures are backed by a robust enforcement regime. As of
We have also taken strong steps where travel from certain countries poses a particularly acute risk to the United Kingdom. On
All international arrivals from red list countries are expected to quarantine in a Government-approved hotel for 10 days. Before flying, they need to pre-book their hotel, and their testing package for day 2 and day 8 tests, on a Government booking system. They are not allowed to use the test-to-release scheme for early release from quarantine. Those measures are kept under constant review, including the important impact on individuals with family ties in other countries.
The Minister has outlined the protections that are taken, and the work that has taken place has been very impressive. Will he just explain a little more some of the separation arrangements in airports themselves—those points of transit where people come together?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: as of
I am proud that we are also protected by our world-leading genomic sequencing capability, including testing those positives that are discovered on entry. That allows us to analyse the test results of arrivals to identify any new variants of concern as quickly as possible. It not only helps us at home to protect ourselves, but helps the rest of the world, too. It is this world-renowned sequencing capability that informs the traffic light system, allowing us to take swift informed decisions to protect public health. That is something we have not shied away from doing, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Recognising the strong strategic rationale and success of the vaccine programme, we have commenced work to consider the role of vaccinations in shaping a different set of health and testing measures for inbound travel. Individuals in England who have had a full vaccine course will be able to demonstrate their vaccine status through the covid-19 vaccine certification for outbound international travel, while border health measures at destination countries will be set by the receiving country. Those requirements will be set out for the public to check entry requirements before travelling.
In closing, this Government understand the importance of international travel to the UK public and the success of the United Kingdom itself. We are determined to ensure that the United Kingdom restarts international travel in a safe and considered way, when the science tells us the time is right to do so.
The Minister talks about international travel going forward, and it is obviously important for the Government to be as open as possible. Will he give a commitment from the Dispatch Box that the risk assessments on India that were done by the Joint Biosecurity Centre will now be published by the Government?
The right hon. Gentleman continues to hark back. Let me give him some details: on
This Government understand the importance of international travel to the UK public and the success of the UK itself. We are determined to ensure that the UK restarts international travel in a safe and considered way when the science tells us that the time is right to do so, and I repeat that message because it is an important one to land. The global travel taskforce, led by the Department for Transport and reporting to the Prime Minister, is working across Government and industry to do just that.
We have made enormous progress this year in tackling the pandemic across our country. That progress has been hard-won in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, and it is vital that we do not risk undermining it now. This Government will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that our response, including on international travel, continues to meet the challenges that covid brings us.
I start by commending Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow Home Secretary, and his colleagues for bringing this important debate to the House. His motion makes some important, very solid points with which we agree. We need clear, simple to understand and proper hotel quarantine restrictions to minimise as far as possible the introduction of new strains. Secondly, measures introduced at the UK border have not worked as we all would have wanted, and the Government need to improve how the scheme is operating. There needs to be transparency on decision making and the data used.
There has to be international co-operation and discussion of how vaccine passports might support the return of safe travel, and there is absolutely a need for a sector-specific support deal. On the suggestion that we move immediately from a full traffic light system to a red and green system, it is fair to say that we could be persuaded. That is something that could be looked at, but we would first need to see the expert advice on that issue, including the view of the JBC.
Before I expand on two or three of those points, let me pay tribute to and thank all the staff—Border Force and others—who are working as hard as possible to try to keep us safe at the border in what are incredibly difficult circumstances. Along with other members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, last week I had a chance to visit Heathrow airport, where we spoke to airport and border staff. They are doing their best in difficult circumstances, and we thank them.
Turning to the motion, of course we need strong border measures, which should include clear, simple and robust systems for self-quarantine as required. Almost every country in the world has used border measures to help to control the virus. As the Minister rightly pointed out, that is only one part of a wider and larger strategy for disease control but, nevertheless, it remains a crucial part of the overall effort to combat covid.
The second key element of the Opposition motion deals with the fact that the UK’s border measures have, on several occasions, fallen short, and the covid pandemic has been worse in the UK as a result. That was, for example, true last year when, as countries around the world were tightening restrictions at the border, the UK went from
Similar mistakes were made earlier this year. When the strong advice was to put a comprehensive health quarantine system in place, that is what the Scottish Government did. The UK Government took the wrong approach—a different approach—and have deservedly been pilloried for their delay in putting India on the red list of countries for which hotel quarantine is required. The consequences are there for all to see, with the Delta strain dominant, increased infectiousness and increased resistance to a single vaccine dose knocking weeks off our recovery.
Linked to those mistakes and, indeed, perhaps a key cause of them, is a lack of transparency about decision-making processes and the data that have driven them. When the Home Affairs Committee repeatedly asked to see the advice that justified the UK lifting measures for travellers 10 days before lockdown last March, what followed was months of obfuscation and stonewalling. Similarly, it has been hard to see the scientific justification for delaying hotel quarantine for arrivals from India—certainly, in terms of published figures, there seems to be absolutely none. In both cases, we are left to conclude that the basis was shaky and, in the latter case, more likely driven by the Prime Minister’s planned visit to India and trade ambitions there, rather than health implications.
The serious consequences of the failure to add India timeously mean that full disclosure and transparency are merited, but we are a long way from seeing that. Indeed, the Minister’s response to an intervention from the right hon. Member for Torfaen illustrated that perfectly. Going forward, further requirements, including quarantine, will continue to have a crucial role. Again, we need full disclosure and transparency about decisions that have been made so that we can understand them, interrogate them and hold Government to account. At the moment, the impression is of constant battles between the Department for Transport and the Department of Health and Social Care in which scientific advice and public health are not always the deciding factor.
Turning to the suggestion that we move immediately from what is a full traffic-light system to a red and green system, as I said at the outset, it is fair to say that we could be persuaded of that case, but we are not persuaded yet. Our position simply is that Government should make decisions based on data and expert scientific advice. Those in government must not hesitate to challenge pushback and interrogate recommendations, but decisions must follow the outcome of such discussions, not prejudge them. If the data show, and the advice from the experts is that a red-green system is the right way to go, we are open to that. All that we are saying is that such changes need to go through a proper system of scrutiny and development first.
There clearly have been significant challenges to the use of home quarantine. During our visit to Heathrow, it was clear that border officials were fully stretched checking passenger locator forms and other requirements, even with a comparatively low number of arrivals. The capacity to cope with any increase in traffic must be seriously questioned, and we need to hear much more from the Home Office about how it is going to respond to that challenge.
There are limits to what checks and forms can realistically be completed at the airport. Few phone numbers or addresses have been checked, which creates difficulties for any in-country enforcement. Surely, there must be ways to check phone numbers and addresses, even before someone steps on to a plane to come here. There is no reason why that cannot be looked at away from the border, and anything that can help frontline staff and make the amber list work better must be considered. Challenges in airport mixing have rightly been raised, and were still present when we visited Heathrow last week. Terminal 4, the dedicated terminal for arrivals from red-list countries, is absolutely welcome, but it does not completely fix the problem, because of the related problem of indirect arrivals from red-list countries, which highlights another problem: passengers from red-list countries who have been mixing on indirect flights with passengers from amber and green-list countries. The challenges remain.
As we look to the future, and hopefully to recover, we could, and probably should, have a full debate on the role of so-called vaccine passports and their implications, but their use and requirement for international travel is simply a fact of life. It is important that the Governments of all the UK nations remain involved in discussions with international partners on how they should work, to set standards and to address ethical challenges that arise.
The motion also rightly points to steps that need to be taken to protect the aviation industry and to support its gradual rejuvenation. That is why, for example, the Scottish Government decided to extend the 100% non-domestic rates relief for the aviation sector for yet another year. My hon. Friend Gavin Newlands has repeatedly made the case for further targeted support from the UK Government in terms of furlough, taxation and direct support, but the response has been underwhelming to say the least.
The UK Government have been weak on restrictions at key points, weak on transparency and still are today, and indeed weak on sector support. It is essential for public health and to protect jobs that they up their game very quickly.
There is a five-minute time limit in place. A few colleagues have withdrawn from the debate, so I will try to keep it at five minutes for as long as possible. Obviously, the clock displays the time count, and for virtual contributions it is on the screen. I call the Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to talk about the issues that the international travel and, indeed, the health regimes face. I do so in a somewhat perplexed state, because normally I am very critical of my Government’s approach for being too cautious, but here I find that the Opposition motion is even more cautious and, in my view, would finish off the international travel industry, which is already on its knees.
What I find perhaps most galling about the motion is that all the measures that would compromise business, having no regard for those who have worked so hard and lost their job in the sector, can just be swept up in the last line, which refers to
“the need for a sector-specific support deal for aviation.”
The international travel industry does not want to be bailed out; it wants to be able to get on and do its job. It is all well and good for the Opposition to put that line in at the end as the catch-all, but it is effectively saying, “We will make you bankrupt, but don’t worry—we’ll appoint a receiver for you.” Frankly, I find it very disappointing indeed.
I am sorry that the shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, has moved away, because I was hoping that he might intervene to clarify something. When I asked him about the effectively perpetual state of the red list, with the amber list being scrapped, he stated that, under the motion, the green list would be grown. In fact, the language is that the Opposition would maintain
“a tightly managed Green List,” so it does not seem to indicate that at all. I ask the shadow Transport Secretary, Jim McMahon, if he is listening, to clarify whether the countries currently on the amber list, such as Malta and the Balearic and Greek islands, would move to the green list or move to the red list, resulting in quarantine.
It is simplistic in the extreme to constantly cite Australia and New Zealand as an example that this country should follow. We are an island trading nation. It is extraordinary listening to the Opposition, whose contributions in this debate I compare with those over the past couple of years in all the debates on Europe, when they said that we could not divorce mainland UK from our European Union partners because of trade and our close links. Yet all of a sudden we can throw a ring of steel around ourselves and have everyone—I assume that means the 10,000 heavy goods vehicle movements that come into this country delivering our trade—put into a red quarantine list and therefore into a hotel.
If everyone is not to be put into a hotel, we have just punctured the ring of steel, in which case what is the point in bringing the international travel industry down? Why not have the halfway house of an amber list, as the Government do? Then we have testing and mitigations in place, but at least allow travel to occur. As soon as we puncture the ring of steel there is no point in having it at all. That would be my point to the shadow Transport Secretary.
If we reduce flights virtually to zero, because no one will travel on them if they are all going to hotel quarantine, that ignores the fact that 40% of our trade comes in the belly of passenger planes, so trade will not come through either. That then results in more trade coming through on more lorries, which of course increases the risk, so there seems to be no logic to that at all.
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head; I look forward to his responses. I hope he pays some regard to my comments, as I am very critical of my own side too. I am accusing him of trying to have it both ways—of trying to show some support to the international travel industry while closing it down, and of suggesting that we can close our borders down, Australia-style, while ignoring how our country interacts and works with Europe. I do not buy it for one minute, and I am afraid to say that it strikes me that the Opposition are showing a bit of red meat to try to appeal to the lowest common denominator, rather than trying genuinely to help the international travel sector recover while balancing health concerns.
That leads me to my last point. This motion seems to ignore the fact that we have a world-class vaccine that has been rolled out. In Sussex, 85% of those in cohorts 1 to 9, the over-50s, have been given both doses. We should be talking about the future and giving optimism and positivity and some signs of milestones to unlock people from the threat of job losses in the international aviation and maritime sectors, giving people hope that they will be able to see their loved ones. I ask the Opposition please to focus less on baseline politics and instead to focus on the industry—stop thinking that they can throw a blank cheque at an industry that wants to get back to work.
We are in this situation now because of the delta variant: there are over 40,000 cases across the country, up from just a couple of hundred two months ago. Without it, the covid rate would by now be very low and pubs, cafés and clubs would be back to normal, but because of the delta variant the Government are having to be careful and we are having to take more time. This was not inevitable and it was predictable. Ministers could have slowed things down and given more time for the NHS to get the vaccine rolled out by putting India on the red list earlier—weeks earlier. They could and should have taken a precautionary approach. They did not do so, however, and in those few weeks in April hundreds of people with covid arrived from India with, it is estimated, hundreds of separate cases of the delta variant.
Ministers are saying that they acted as soon as they had the information to do so, but they did not. Even when they finally announced that India was going on the red list, they inexplicably delayed for a further four days—but why? They allowed dozens more packed flights to return and people to go home to family and friends, accelerating the spread of the delta variant.
More importantly, there were serious signs way before then. Covid cases in India were already accelerating in March, up from 11,000 a day at the beginning of the month to 80,000 a day by the end, and doubling again by
The Government have said that they were acting slowly because they did not have the full case-positivity data on people arriving from India for several more weeks afterwards, but that is a nonsense argument, because we know that that data does not tell us what is happening now; it tells us only what was happening several weeks ago. We could not afford to wait for several weeks when we already had the evidence that the India cases where accelerating fast. We know that the Government were reluctant; we know that they wanted to wait until the last possible minute so that the Prime Minister could make his planned trip to India, but the lesson of covid is that we cannot wait until the last possible minute; we have to act early.
If the Government are confident that they took the right decisions, why are they still not publishing the advice and risk assessments from the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which the Home Affairs Committee called to be published back in August last year? Why the secrecy? The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies papers are all published, so why not publish the Joint Biosecurity Centre analysis? They should publish it on Portugal, publish it on other countries—publish it on all countries across the world so that we can have proper, transparent debate about the risks and challenges and what action needs to be taken. It would be far better to do that.
Why will the Government also not recognise some of the weak points in the current amber home quarantine system that the delta variant has exposed? People with the delta variant travelled home under the amber system and the variant still spread, in part because people can travel home by public transport from the airport without any test on arrival and can go home to their friends and family, who do not have to self-isolate or even get tested. By the time the asymptomatic traveller tests positive, their flatmates or friends could have been in work or in shops, which means that new variants can spread.
Time and again I have called on the Government to learn from the South Korean model of home quarantine, which has tighter rules. I still believe that they should learn those lessons in order to look forward with a sustainable approach as international travel opens up. The real tragedy is that, time and again, they have not listened and learned. In the first wave, we had no covid border measures in place for months; as a result, an estimated 10,000 people arrived and accelerated the pandemic at an earlier stage. It is reported that, during the summer, people returning from summer holidays in August and September contributed to the second wave, because we did not have a proper testing system in place at the border.
We now face a new challenge because of the new variants and the failure to put India on the red list. The Government need to learn these lessons: first, we need much greater transparency so we can have a proper and open debate about where the risks are; secondly, we need a better surveillance system so that we have up-to-date data rather than waiting for any lags; and thirdly, we need to strengthen the quarantine system so that we can prevent new variants from spreading. People have done their bit across the country to support the vaccine programme. Now the Government need to do their bit and not let people down at the borders.
Let us cast our mind back to January 2020, when we were first learning about the new virus. I remember the approach taken at the time to people coming in from parts of the world with a higher number of cases, because many of them were quarantined just down the road from me at Arrowe Park Hospital. No chances were taken then, but all that stopped very shortly afterwards: we carried on as normal, welcoming people—and the virus—from all over the world. We saw images from Spain of cases rising, yet Atlético Madrid fans were still allowed to enter the country for a champions league game in early March, contributing to an increase in cases and—according to one study—to an additional 41 deaths.
Perhaps some latitude can be given because at the time we were dealing with a new virus, but I find it hard to reconcile the actions that were taken with arrivals from Wuhan, where we knew that there was an outbreak, and from Madrid, where we also knew that there was an outbreak. Hardest to reconcile is the fact that, while the country was in lockdown from March last year onwards, thousands of people were still entering the country every day.
Turning to more recent events, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the reason that the full unlocking of the country is not going ahead is the decision to delay putting India on the red list, which has led to the delta variant rapidly pushing up case numbers. All that good work and all the benefits of the vaccine were blown because the Prime Minister was once again too slow, just as he was too slow with the first lockdown, the second and the third. His incompetence has cost this country dear.
I know that the Government will say that they acted as soon as they could on the information that they had, but I do not accept that. The only data that they have released on the Indian variant shows that they should have acted sooner. Indeed, the explanation for why they did not act sooner has shifted in the past few days, as we have heard again today, from the data not supporting action to the variant not having been identified as one of interest or concern. That is not the explanation that was advanced originally; nor does it explain why Pakistan and Bangladesh were treated differently.
The Health Secretary told the House on
“The positivity rates…were 1.6% in India and 4.6% in Pakistan”.—[Official Report,
That seems a fair enough reason—except that I cannot find those figures anywhere. Indeed, the Government’s own figures on the variant show that in the period from
That is not the only data that contradicts the Government’s claims. Their own data on the number of variants that they detected from those countries in the period from
The only credible explanation that I can find for treating India differently is that the Prime Minister did not want to scupper his trade visit and photo opportunity with the Indian Prime Minister. It is no wonder that he does not want to come here in person and explain to the House why his road map has been put on ice, because it is his own vanity and his own incompetence that has led us to where we are today.
Does the new traffic light system give us confidence that the Government finally have a system in place that manages risk? Well, not really, as we have had Ministers contradicting themselves on that as well, particularly on travel advice. This is what happened in just one day following the announcement on international travel reopening: the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that people could fly to amber-list countries if they wanted to visit family and friends; the Health Minister in the other place said that nobody should travel outside Britain at all this year; and the Welsh Secretary said that some people might consider holidays abroad as essential. The following day, the Prime Minister set another definition. He said that people should travel only in extreme circumstances. That is four definitions in 24 hours, which is the nub of the problem. Everyone can have their own view on what is essential, which means that there is an ambivalence at the heart of Government policy that this virus can exploit.
For the past year, we have painstakingly legislated for every facet of our lives: when we can leave home; what time we have to leave the pub; and how many people can attend a funeral. On international travel, though, we seem to have a free-for-all.
Finally, I just want to say a few words about the absolute shambles that the Government have made of the day 2 and day 8 testing for those quarantining at home, with hundreds of people who book covid tests from firms that are listed under the Department’s own website complaining that they have either not received those tests, or that they have not received the results on time. These private companies, some of which did not exist at all last year and have zero experience in this area, are benefiting from an open-door policy from Government, because it seems that they can request to be added to the list of approved suppliers on the Government website simply by self-declaring that they meet the minimum standards required.
I find it absolutely astonishing that we are operating one of the most critical parts of our defence in such a reckless way. Fewer than 10% of those companies actually turned out to be accredited, so the Government really do need to do something to tighten that up as well.
During the covid pandemic, it is vital that we have ways to manage our borders to allow for travel where it is safe, as well as protecting our population at home. However, this motion talks about the UK’s borders, but we know that the position is not that straightforward.
International travel has sadly been yet another example of a failure of our four-nations approach to tackling the pandemic across the UK. Until very recent weeks, different rules were in place across the four nations, with travellers from some countries arriving in England and being able to quarantine at home, while those arriving in Scotland, for example, needed to quarantine in a hotel. Even now, when we are seeing an alignment in the traffic light system, confusing as it is, there are differences with Scotland. For example, it does not have a test to release scheme. Just because Scotland has done it differently does not mean that it has always done it better. The Scottish Government, like the UK Government, acted too slowly last summer, failing to protect against new variants entering the country or to set up a test, trace and isolate infrastructure effectively to prevent a second wave. During that time, the quarantined travellers’ spot-check target was missed for four months in a row, which was highlighted by my colleague and friend the MSP for North-East Fife.
What we have seen across the UK is no clarity or certainty, which is exactly what is required to enable public confidence. There is no clarity or certainty for the tourism industry or for those wanting to reunite with family members abroad who see a narrative of desperate holidaymakers and watch others here with their loved ones. There is insufficient support for those who need to isolate and still not enough funding available for tourism businesses that have no customers. This is not just about vaccine success in the UK. UK-inbound tourism is vital to North-East Fife, particularly in relation to golf, which I have highlighted several times in this House. This lack of clarity and certainty devastates the industry, with cancellations in 2020 and now in 2021.
Most of all, a lack of a meaningful four-nations approach leads to confusion. If people do not understand the rules, or do not understand why the rules are different across the UK, despite best intentions, they end up not following them. I was contacted by one constituent, a seafarer, who was subject to different rules and quarantine, depending on where he returned to in the UK. He was reaching out to my office in the hope that I could provide clarity, but there are simply inconsistencies. We see the risks of that confusion now as the delta variant, which many have already spoken about, has quickly become the most prevalent variant across the UK in recent weeks.
If the UK Government had worked properly with the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and taken a more joined-up approach, clear rules could have been agreed and adhered to consistently. This problem will not be solved until the covid-19 pandemic has been tackled globally, and although I welcome the UK Government and G7 pledges on vaccinations, they are simply not enough. Until the pandemic is tackled globally, we need to find a way for safe travel, proper border checks, clear rules and support for those who need it, and to do that in the UK, we need the four nations working together.
There almost comes a time in these debates at which points are repeated. I shall approach the debate from an internationalist and security perspective.
I intervened on the Minister and mentioned the echo variant. It is absolutely worth stressing the incredible capabilities that we in the UK have in genome sequencing, which mean that we can identify how this virus is changing, but the new variant illustrates how versatile it is in adapting and mutating again and again. We talk of imposing border controls, but we still know so little about this virus, which is why we had five-week increments for easing the restrictions. As my hon. Friend Claire Coutinho mentioned in another intervention, even the toughest of border measures in Australia cannot contain its movement.
From a biosecurity perspective we need to learn more about the virus. I take this opportunity to stress the importance of asking China to open up its doors. We still do not know who patient zero was or where ground zero was. The World Health Organisation team was denied access for more than a year. It could not interview the original patients and certainly was not allowed properly to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology, about which so many questions have now been raised.
The pandemic has shone a light on how frail our world order currently is, with countries retreating from global exposure and becoming more independent, international organisations almost paralysed in their ability to help, and the two most powerful nations—the biggest superpowers—clashing in a war of words rather than collaborating and working together. I therefore congratulate the Government on their G7 summit. The west has been distracted and there has been a lack of unity, but it is starting to regroup, as reflected in the G7 communiqué, which prioritised the need to end the pandemic and prepare for the future. It recognised how OECD countries must help by driving an intensified international effort to vaccinate the world by getting as many safe vaccines to as many people as possible, as fast as possible. The UK is leading that approach through the COVAX initiative, which is absolutely to be welcomed.
At the same time, the G7 will create the appropriate frameworks to strengthen our collective defences against threats to global health by increasing and co-ordinating global manufacturing capability on all continents, improving the warning systems and supporting science to shorten the cycle for the development of safe and effective vaccines. If we do not do that, it will not be the echo, golf or hotel variants but something further down the line that affects us and prevents us from finally turning our back on this pandemic.
The Prime Minister was right to extend the road map, which was created back in February and was always going to be subject to conditions. It was written well before the Indian variant emerged but with new hurdles in mind. In announcing any road map, there is always the risk of disappointment if we have to deviate from it. That is the toughest of calls for any Government to make, with the nation so understandably exhausted and eager to return to normal. The incredible vaccination programme has given us a sense of security and perhaps optimism that we can move forward, but the impact of the Indian variant must be taken seriously, as should the echo variant, about which we still do not know much.
I stress to the Minister and the Government that it is the vaccinations that will get us out of here. I absolutely applaud the work that we are doing internationally, but can we start to move, in September, to vaccinate teenagers as well? Finally, so many people want to travel abroad, so can we co-ordinate efforts and join a travel system with our European partners so that if someone has had two vaccines, they can travel unimpeded and holiday abroad?
The delta variant, commonly known as the Indian variant, did not just miraculously appear on our shores via an act of God. It arrived because our borders were open to hundreds of people infected with it. That is a fact. We only had to switch on the TV to see the horrendous tragedy unfolding in India for all the world to see, yet despite the scientific advice—and, indeed, the call from those on our Front Bench way back in February—the closure of that border and those restrictions were not introduced until
The Indian variant is now our variant, accounting for over 90% of cases. A strain identified in an outbreak in the Northwich part of my constituency is now spreading at an alarming rate throughout Cheshire, the north-west and our nation. Hospitalisations have now started to creep up, and we are in a race against time to jab to save lives, while local leaders in Cheshire, Merseyside, Halton and Warrington are pleading for more vaccine supplies. Mr Ellwood referred to teenagers now being a priority, and I concur with that plea.
This did not, of course, have to be the case, and the finger should be pointed firmly at the door of No. 10 and the Prime Minister. It was his desperation to secure a trade deal on his planned trip to India that meant this followed the photo opportunity, not the data. Not only has this incompetence thrown us off track, but it could cost even more lives and livelihoods. The hospitality sector in my constituency is clinging on by its fingertips, with pubs, restaurants and the night-time economy having that hope upon the horizon shattered by the gross incompetence of this Prime Minister and Government. To add insult to injury, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are now refusing to extend targeted support to the sector. These callous decisions are putting people out of business and out of jobs.
In conclusion, from Northwich to Runcorn and from Frodsham to Helsby, people in my constituency will remember, and the judgment day will come. No more benefit of the doubt—the truth will truly set us free about this absolute shower of a Government.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to the debate this afternoon. I rise to speak not because I do not accept that coronavirus has created acute and challenging issues on the border, not because there are not difficulties and constraints for many people around the UK who either need or want to travel abroad and not because there are not real challenges for the aviation and transport sectors caught up in a maelstrom created by one of the most unprecedented times in our lives—there are and I absolutely accept those challenges and those difficulties, which I do not think anyone in this House would question. However, the question for this place today is not about that; it is about what the Government could do and what it was reasonable and proportionate for them to do.
In a year of difficult decisions, border policy is a particularly difficult one to get right. Too prescriptive and the United Kingdom runs the risk of withdrawing unnecessarily from the world and of leaving its key role as a member of the international community, all for limited to no economic, societal or health benefit and, compounding that—which then creates an effective Catch-22—the UK’s approach would in effect be determined by things that it does not have primary responsibility over. On the other hand, too laissez-faire, and we run the risk of squandering the great advantages we have built with vaccinations.
Given that tremendously nuanced and sensitive situation, one would hope that border policy could be determined and discussed with a similar level of nuance and sensitivity, but this is of course an Opposition day debate, and as has been the case for the four years I have been in this Chamber, such hopes are dashed each time. Frankly, the illogical arguments we have heard so far from the other side of the Chamber—so eloquently outlined by Mike Amesbury, who is no longer in his place—are more a reflection of how this is just another political stunt than a serious attempt to scrutinise the Government, hold them to account or provide constructive attempts to improve the policy.
In the coming weeks, we are going to be one of the first large countries in the world to be pretty much as vaccinated as we can be. In time, that should, and hopefully will, open up new opportunities so that in the coming period, when we are going to need to work meaningfully to properly restart parts of life such as international travel, we should be looking at broadening the tools at our disposal, recognising new ones and accepting that we have a set of balanced judgments to make.
Knowing full well that this is the situation, what does the Labour party propose? Not nuance, sensitivity or thought, but instead, exactly the opposite: the removal of one of the tools—one of the lights of the traffic light—that allows us to take different approaches for different countries, dependent on different situations. We can debate which countries go into which traffic light colour, but surely it is reasonable that there can be more than two options for international travel in the coming months as we try to get it going again.
Secondly, if the Labour party does want a completely binary proposition for international travel, which, by default, can be only no travel or travel, perhaps it could articulate how that is sustainable over the long term and what criteria it would apply to flick the switch from “Don’t travel” to “Do travel” with nothing in between. For countries where the risk is reducing, do we keep them on the red list longer than is necessary for no advantage to our country, or do we move them to the green list in advance of us being totally comfortable with them being there?
If the amber list is going to be abolished, how do the Opposition propose to resource that? Hotel quarantine is a difficult policy and one that appears sustainable at only a relatively small scale. As places such as Australia have shown, there is challenge and unintended consequences within that—people who cannot get home, important family or medical trips that are difficult to go on, and so on. Will Labour stop British citizens coming to the UK, and could Labour Members explain how they are seeking practically to make a policy work that is already strained for a country of 20 million people with 20 million visits and which they are now apparently seeking to try to apply to a population of 70 million, with 145 million visits?
There has also been a liberal sprinkling of references to the arrival of the Indian variant in the UK, starting with the shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, and then the hon. Member for Weaver Vale. There have been nebulous suggestions that this could have been prevented with greater border control. That is just not correct. The Labour party appears to be arguing with science. The Indian variant was here on
Time and time again, the Government have shown catastrophic failings during the pandemic. The pandemic was not inevitable, and no one could predict such things, but when the rest of the world was closing its borders and placing their nations in lockdown, our Prime Minister was boasting about shaking the hands of covid patients. This was not inevitable.
It was the Labour plan to have a comprehensive quarantine policy to protect our nation’s efforts and the vaccine roll-out from variants entering from across the world, but this Government failed to listen and implement the policies that we needed. As early as
“Given the data, it would be fair…to conclude the following: the Government doesn’t have a coherent strategy in dealing with the red list, and the Government isn’t serious about protecting the British public, as it is applying decisions led by politics, not data.”
Days later, on
This is not an “I told you so” moment, because whether it is the delta variant or the “Johnson variant”, as was trending on Twitter last night, the reason for the delay in reopening is not that the British public have not played their part, not that the NHS staff have not worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic and have not done enough, not that the key workers have not risked their lives to keep our economy going, and not that my constituents or those of other Members across this House have not made huge sacrifices: the reason we are here today is simply because our Prime Minister was more interested in following the politics of—[Inaudible]—that would protect our nation’s efforts throughout the pandemic. Now this nation is paying the price in freedom because of our Prime Minister’s self-interest and utter failure. The real tragedy is that we have a Prime Minister whereby failure and callous decisions are inevitable time and time again.
The Minister gave some dates—India being placed on the red list on
What is the science? What is the data? What have the Government got to hide? Why cannot they just publish the data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre analysis, because that is all we are asking for? We have a right to know—the public have a right to know—for how long this Government are going to take us for mugs and give us an argument that just does not stack up. The public are not stupid; people are not stupid. We see through this. The Government can give their spiel, as they often do in this Chamber, but the truth is that it was either about the science or the politics. There is no other conclusion that anybody can draw but that the science was supporting the closure of India and putting it on to the red list, and our Prime Minister failed because he put politics before the security of the people.
I urge the Minister at least to publish the data, and not to hide behind arguments that simply do not wash.
Order. We have a withdrawal at No. 14 on the speakers list. I will try to put the limit up to six minutes for a while and see if we can manage. It might have to go down, but we can do that for a bit.
The calamity that we have witnessed in recent days is because of the Government’s botched handling of the delta variant. This was not inevitable, but a failure of this Government to act swiftly and without dither or delay against the variant. Indeed, this whole sorry saga is a culmination of blunder after blunder in the Government’s protection of our borders during the pandemic. My right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper was right to point to the repeated making of mistakes. This should not have happened. As an island nation, we should be better than this. Instead we have seen a Government too slow on quarantine at international arrivals, too slow on border testing, and too slow to put India on the red list. It took 22 days between the Government knowing that the delta variant had entered the UK and India being placed on the red list. All the while, the delta variant has spread throughout the country.
The consequences for public health are serious, but so are the consequences for British businesses, not least those in the hospitality industry in Birmingham. The managing director of one events company said that this is
“having a huge impact on my business”.
“We understand the need to ban events but the uncertainty and short-term plans from the Government have really hampered any recovery”.
And another said that extra support from the Treasury would be vital because without it
“further job losses are inevitable and ultimately an entire industry will collapse.”
This is the key reason why the Government’s failures will be so costly to British business and British workers.
Thus far, the Chancellor refuses to support those businesses whose suffering will be prolonged because of the Government’s blunders on protecting our borders. Just how can the Government expect those struggling events businesses in Birmingham that have been closed for the past 15 months to be able to pay, for example, 10% of their employees’ wages when they are still unable to operate as normal? UKHospitality has been particularly critical, saying that a failure to act could see the industry suffering a loss of £3 billion and put up to 200,000 jobs at risk. That problem is particularly acute in the constituency that I am proud to represent, because the unemployment figures out today show that we have twice the national average unemployment. I always say that my constituency is rich in talent but one of the poorest in Britain. It will be hit hard with job losses as a consequence of this.
It beggars belief that, after the trauma of the past 15 months, good businesses and good jobs face going to the wall because the Government have thus far refused to support them for the final weeks of restrictions. I say “thus far” because one of the key reasons behind the motion is that we eminently hope that the Government will act in terms of financial support at the next stages. We hope that the House will vote for the motion, because it is about the interests of the British people and their health, welfare and safety, and about protecting British jobs. Without the proper protections at our borders, we run the risk of future variants threatening the road map for relaxing restrictions further, and the devastating impact that that will needlessly inflict on businesses and workers.
In conclusion, our focus is twofold. It is on the interests of British business—of that there is absolutely no doubt, because it matters—but it is also on the health, wellbeing and safety of the British people, because the first duty of any Government is the safety and security of their citizens. I fear that unless the Government get a serious grip of this situation, they will put their responsibility to the British people in jeopardy.
I am pleased to speak in this debate about secure borders during the pandemic. Measures to limit international travel are obviously vital in reducing the risk of importing cases to the UK from countries where covid-19 remains high. It is right that we take a cautious approach, and the traffic light system is the right one. It is relatively simple to understand as we look towards some international travel returning, although it is clearly beyond the understanding of the Opposition. It remains vital that we continue to take a data-led approach that is regularly reviewed, with restrictions on those countries where the risks are higher, to ensure that we can protect the UK from further outbreaks and variants as we continue to benefit from the incredible efforts being made by those delivering the vaccination programme. I would like to thank each and every one of those who have been involved in the vaccination programme, particularly the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi, who has made a huge effort to ensure that we vaccinate people as quickly as possible.
Strict measures are in place to protect our borders, with significant fines for those who do not follow requirements for testing, isolating and completing passenger locator forms. I know that efforts are being made to further streamline and integrate checks with existing border security measures. Some have questioned why India was not put on the red list sooner, and although I have some sympathy for that view, the reality is that the virus often evolves faster than many countries are able to detect it. It has already been pointed out that the genome-detecting capability in this country represents almost half of the global capability in genome detecting. As has also been said by a number of hon. Members, India was on the red list before the delta variant even became what is known as a variant under investigation, let alone a variant of concern.
Like all Members across the House, I have many constituents who have had travel plans put on hold or cancelled altogether due to the restrictions on international travel. A number have struggled to get refunds from operators and turned to me for help. Clearly, travel companies are under huge pressure, but it is only right, as the Government have made clear, that people should be refunded when their plans have been disrupted due to covid. The Government have provided £7 billion of support to the aviation sector during the pandemic, and they have also suspended the requirements around slots.
The Government have advised against travel to amber list countries except for essential reasons. It is clear that people should not be travelling to amber or red list countries for a holiday. Of course, many will be impacted by that, but it is right that the amber category remains, to allow some limited travel to continue to those countries at medium risk, recognising that people do not only need to travel for holidays but may have more pressing reasons to make journeys outside the UK.
That has presented a challenge for some when operators continue to run services and make it difficult for people to change their plans or get refunds. I am helping a number of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South in that situation at the moment, and I will continue to do so. I have also had a number of constituents struggling to return from Pakistan after visiting friends and family. The requirement to isolate for 10 days, while totally necessary, has been particularly challenging for some with ill health or some medical conditions. While I applaud the efforts to rapidly deploy and set up a system for those needing to quarantine, I am sure it will continue to improve. I particularly hope that the process for approving those who need exemptions will be further improved to ensure quicker response times, especially for those needing medical treatment back here in the UK.
I want to finish by mentioning an issue that is of particular concern to my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South: the breaches of our border security in the English channel by illegal migrants. In attempting to cross the channel, they risk not only their own lives but those of others by potentially bringing the virus and new variants with them. I thank the Home Secretary for the robust action she has been taking to address the appalling criminal people traffickers who enable those dangerous journeys, and I fully support the Government’s new plan for immigration to address this issue.
We must deter those who think that they can come here illegally with no consequence, and reduce the pressure being put on places such as Stoke-on-Trent. We have resettled more than most other parts of the country, while many have not taken in a single refugee. As I set out recently in a Westminster Hall debate on this issue, it is time for Opposition Members to stop grandstanding and actually do something. Just as they attempt to score political points on the issue of asylum, they have tried to play exactly the same game over international travel, repeatedly changing positions on borders throughout the pandemic and shamefully exploiting the benefits of hindsight.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown up unprecedented challenges for us all, from adapting to home working and home schooling to the new restrictions that we have all had to live with and, of course, missing time with our loved ones. That is not to mention the hard work of key workers who have faced this pandemic and seen the very worst of this deadly virus. But as more and more of us get vaccinated every day and the end of the pandemic is in sight, we have to proceed with more caution than ever.
It seems to me that undoubtedly the biggest threat to our recovery from the pandemic is the emergence of new variants that not only are able to spread faster but, it is feared, may be resistant to the vaccines at some point. The vaccination programme is our way out of this pandemic, and to jeopardise that is nothing short of reckless.
A report published by Public Health England outlined that more than 90% of new coronavirus cases across the UK originate from the delta variant. The report stated that the delta variant is able to spread quicker, with cases of the virus doubling between every 4.5 and 11.5 days. Additionally, the delta variant has been found to increase the risk of household transmission by 60% compared with the alpha variant. To prevent any further variants, which may be even more threatening, it is vital that the British Government put in place clear testing and isolating rules for international travel. Fundamentally, that means stricter border control.
Time after time, the British Government have been slow to respond and late to act. Whether it was the countless flights landing in the UK from Italy in March 2020, the laissez-faire approach to the P.1 variant ravaging Brazil, or the delta variant, which has caused so much devastation in India and right across the world, each and every time, the UK failed to secure the border.
The fact is that the UK has continually made mistakes over travelling during the pandemic. In December last year, the UK Government announced their business traveller exemption, whereby business travellers did not need to self-isolate when returning from a country not in the travel corridor. That decision was utterly irresponsible and further highlights the UK Government’s ad hoc guidance throughout the pandemic. Only days later did the Prime Minister announce that people across the UK should not travel for the Christmas holidays, and the plans originally set out were revised and reversed due to rising cases. On top of all the obvious public health consequences, this policy underlines how the British Government have put forward one rule for their “high net worth” business mates and another for the rest of the public. The policy perpetuates the cronyism and inequality that have become symbolic of this Conservative Government.
In Scotland, we have put in place clear rules on international travel, employing a traffic light system which is informed by risk assessments prepared by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. The assessments take into account the state of the pandemic in each country across the world and give consideration to variants of concern. The Scottish Government will continue to take decisions that they consider right for Scotland and will not sign up to decisions that might put that progress at risk.
This haphazard Vicky Pollard-like approach to border control has highlighted one of the major deficiencies in the current constitutional settlement in these islands. An independent Scotland would have full control of its borders and not be subject to the whim of the British Government’s ad hoc decisions. The end of the pandemic is almost in sight. After an incredibly difficult year for so many of us, we need to tread carefully as we recover from this virus. We in Scotland are clear that, when we have recovered from coronavirus, it is vital that the ability to choose Scotland’s own future in every aspect of policy, including border control, be in the hands of the people of Scotland. Westminster is not working for Scotland. This latest farce perhaps highlights that better than any SNP leaflet ever could.
It is a pleasure to take part in today’s debate. I will start by paying tribute to UK Border Force, NHS Test and Trace, ministerial colleagues and officials in the Departments for Health and Social Care and for Transport, and the Civil Aviation Authority, and by saying a huge thank you to airline and airport workers, many of whom live in my constituency of Guildford and work at the nearby Heathrow and Gatwick Airports. They have all worked incredibly hard in their roles to keep our borders secure while, crucially, making sure that the importation of vital food and medicines, important to our citizens, was not disrupted.
It is also important that we thank all our constituents who have followed all the measures laid down by the Government when they needed to travel. They are not all going on a jolly or on holiday; a lot of them, including colleagues of ours, have had to travel to deal with serious issues in their personal and family lives, such as bereavements, and on their return they have done a great job of complying with every measure the Government have set out.
The enormous success of our vaccine roll-out is the route out of lockdown, and I welcome the short delay in moving to step 4, as that will give us the opportunity to double jab those in their 40s and to give every adult at least one jab. I encourage everyone to take up the offer of a jab when it is made, even if their age group has already been called and they have not got round to it, because so far the vaccines are proving to be highly effective against each of the variants, including the most prevalent delta variant, and hopefully will be against emerging variants, such as the echo variant mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood.
The motion before the House starts:
“That this House
believes that there must be a clear, simply understood and proper hotel quarantine scheme in operation at the UK border to minimise the risk of introduction of new variants into the UK”.
It is clear. My constituents understand it. My daughter, who has been working abroad this year—I know I do not look old enough to have an adult daughter, Madam Deputy Speaker—understands it as well. She is to return in three weeks, and this morning I was talking to her about all the tests that she has to undergo if she is to return here and then reintegrate into society, and to ensure that she does not put anyone else at risk. This is something the vast majority of our constituents do.
Having spent the first 24 years of my life in New Zealand and Australia, I have been watching closely to see what they have been doing because I have family and friends there. I care deeply about this country and my constituents, and about my friends. I have seen that, even with the tightest security on the borders, virus still gets in—it just takes one case and the virus spreads. We ought to be careful about making international comparisons because not everywhere has been able to deal with the virus very effectively and we do have secure borders.
Protecting public health is our priority as we reopen international travel safely. We will maintain 100% health checks at the border to protect our constituents. We have some of the most stringent border measures in the world. Border Force will check every passenger who arrives at the border to ensure that they have complied with the health measures, take the mandatory 10-day quarantine for those arriving from amber countries and have a managed facility for those from red countries. Our red, amber and green travel list is reviewed every three weeks. If we take out the amber, it is not really a traffic light any more, is it? But we will not hesitate to act sooner if the data suggests that that is necessary. At each stage where we have had the emergence of variants and have had to act quickly, we have taken decisive action to update the list.
Today, Labour is playing political games again. Last year, Labour was flip-flopping all over the place. When we decided to shut our borders, the shadow Transport Secretary, Jim McMahon, called it a “knee-jerk action” and
“the introduction of a 14-day, blunt-tool quarantine with almost no notice”.—[Official Report,
I do not think anything we do would please Labour, but what are we doing? We are securing our borders, vaccinating our citizens, gifting vaccines to the world and recovering our economy so that we can build back better from the pandemic. We have a plan for jobs; Labour’s motion today would cost aviation jobs. While Labour is playing political games, this Government are getting on with the job of ensuring that we recover from the virus.
This Government talk a lot about control of our borders, but their actions on covid-19 tell a different story. We would almost certainly be in a better place, looking forward to the planned removal of further lockdown measures next week, if the much more transmissible delta variant had not become dominant so quickly. It did so because the Government did not act swiftly enough to place India on the red list and I think they know that.
A month ago, I asked the Health Secretary whether the decision to delay putting India on the red list—despite Pakistan and Bangladesh being added with lower daily infection rates—was influenced by the Prime Minister’s imminent visit to India and his desire to secure a trade deal. At that time, the Health Secretary told me that it was because more testing was being done in India, so the case rate per 100,000 in Pakistan and Bangladesh was likely to be inaccurate. Yesterday, he changed tack, telling the shadow Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth, that it was because the delta variant had not been designated a variant of concern or investigation at the time. Today, the Vaccine Minister added new reasons. Perhaps it would be better if the Government just admit they got it wrong, as Members across the House know. In doing so, let us learn lessons and apply them to some of the issues coming up over the next period.
In that context, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international students, I would like to make a genuinely helpful proposal, which enjoys cross-party support and to which I hope the Minister will respond in winding up. Because of the excellence of UK universities and the success of the Government’s global education strategy, which I am pleased embraces many of the recommendations that the APPG made, we can anticipate substantial numbers of international students arriving in the UK for the new academic year in September.
We cannot know exact numbers at this stage, because places have not yet been confirmed, but in the last academic year more than 500,000 international students were enrolled at UK universities. Of those, more than 100,000 were from what we would now designate as red-list countries. Recruitment is strong for the coming year, so we can anticipate that that there will be many new students coming from those countries in September. There will also be many who are continuing their studies—those who have been learning remotely and want to return to the UK.
On Friday, the Home Office updated guidance for student sponsors, confirming an extension to the date by which international students must be in the UK to qualify for the graduate route and a temporary removal of the 28-day rule for students applying for an additional course. It is now advising both previous and new cohort students to be in the UK by
The Government have not confirmed the current capacity for red-list quarantine facilities, but when the list was introduced in February capacity was reported to be about 4,600 rooms across 16 hotels. Even if on a conservative estimate—I think it is conservative—just one in five of the cohort similar to the last academic year arrived this September, we would be looking at more than 20,000 students from red-list countries arriving here and overwhelming quarantine capacity by a ratio of four to one; that is if we are still in the same position in September, although let us hope we are not.
Ministers should be working with universities to build partnerships with local hotels to offer quarantine and extend capacity, but there is also an urgent need to avoid the surge of students coming to the UK at one time in September. This would easily be achieved by further extending the tier 4 visa flexibility; allowing international students, particularly the 2021-22 cohort, to study via distance and blended learning; and offering a further extension to the date required to qualify for the graduate route, preferably until Christmas 2021.
That is all that is needed, but Ministers must make a decision now because universities are already issuing CAS—confirmation of acceptance for studies—numbers for visa sponsorship, and students will be applying for visas, booking flights and arranging accommodation. There is not the space to make decisions in the days before arrival in a way we have seen in the past. Failure to make those decisions now will not only destroy the hopes of students whom we want to welcome to the UK; it will also sabotage covid-19 border security.
I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of making the decision urgently and respond to the comments that I have made, and that we will see a further update to the guidance as a matter of urgency.
I am grateful to be called in this debate and it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield.
Time and again throughout the coronavirus crisis, we have seen delays, mistakes and U-turns from the Government. The shambolic last-minute approach to the border policy has fundamentally put people across the UK at risk. The Government were too late to start formal quarantine, too late to start testing at the borders and too late to add India to the red list, even when all the evidence suggested that they needed to act swiftly. More than a year down the line, we continue to feel the impact of the delays and the Government’s utter incompetence.
The delta variant is now the dominant strain in the UK, with 29,000 cases reported in one week alone. Ministers simply cannot say that this has taken them by surprise or that they did not have time to act. The Government knew that the delta variant had entered the UK on
I am very pleased to see reports today that two doses of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines provide more than 90% protection from hospitalisation with the delta variant. It would be remiss of me not to put on the record my sincere gratitude to all the incredible staff and volunteers, who have worked extremely hard, especially in Wales, to vaccinate our population. In Wales we have a world-leading vaccination programme, and every adult has been offered at least one dose of the vaccine. However, the Government’s ongoing failure to get a grip of border policy opens us up to the very real and very dangerous possibility of vaccine-resistant covid strains.
The amber list causes chaos and confusion for my constituents. The last-minute change in Portugal’s status left people paying huge amounts of money for flights with little notice, and many were left panicking about invalid insurance and insufficient protection from the UK Government. Even once back in the UK, the situation is no better. We have all heard the horror stories and the all-too-frequent cases where the quarantine system has failed our citizens. I have heard in depth from one of my constituents, who has recently returned from the United Arab Emirates. He outlined the many steps that he has taken to keep himself and others safe, which include following local guidelines, having two vaccinations as well as a vaccination booster, weekly PCR tests and antibody test results—the list goes on.
However, all my constituent’s efforts seem to have gone to waste, as there was no control system of social distancing in place while he was in transit to Amsterdam. Despite travelling from a red list country, upon his arrival at Birmingham airport he was free to mix and collect his luggage with all other passengers. Surely more thought needs to be put into those logistics. The Government simply must see the error of their ways and immediately bring an end to their haphazard, last-minute, catch-up approach to border policy.
I feel a great deal of sympathy for those with family living abroad. Many will have gone more than a year without seeing their loved ones, and I can only imagine how hard that must be, but we must be cautious. We cannot risk further lockdowns and further deaths, especially when we consider the huge sacrifices that people have made in the last year to follow the rules and to bring down cases.
As we wait for travel to be safe again, let me once again plead with the Minister to work with his colleagues to introduce proper sector-specific support for the aviation industry. GE and British Airways in my constituency of Pontypridd have already had to make significant staffing cuts, but staff are worried that there are more to come. While trade unions such as my own, Unite, are doing their best to support workers in the industry, their warnings to the UK Government have been dismissed and ignored.
We really are at a crossroads. While I am grateful for the positive work on the vaccine roll-out, and the work of our fantastic NHS across the devolved nations, enough is enough. I urge the Minister to hear our pleas and work with colleagues across Government Departments and across the House to act now to bring an end to this utter chaos.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate, and a particular pleasure to follow my friend Alex Davies-Jones, although I do not think that she will be surprised to know that I did not agree with all her points. However, I was particularly struck by her tribute to the roll-out of the Welsh vaccine. I share her praise for all those who have been involved in the vaccine roll-out, which I think is a success of this brilliant British Government. My hon. Friend Angela Richardson started her eloquent speech with a wonderful tribute to various professions that have helped to keep our borders safe and our travel industry going in the form in which it has needed to operate in covid times. I fully endorse the list that she gave in her wonderful speech.
The borders policy that we have implemented as a Government is proportionate to the risks that we face at the moment. It is a sensible policy. As time has gone on, we have implemented a clear quarantining policy. We have a traffic light system that, if we took out amber, may not be a traffic light system. We have a passenger location form system in place, and I was very pleased to see recently that we have increased the number of checks on those who come into the country to ensure that they are where they say they are. Of course, we also have the testing regime. Those of us in the House who were involved in that in April last year will remember when the number of tests that we were doing was minute. The way in which we have grown the testing system in this country is phenomenal. It has been a huge success for all the scientists, Government Departments and businesses involved.
I am a little reluctant to stray into this “toughest border policy ever” argument and to play political ping-pong on who can sound the toughest on borders. I appreciate, after all that happened from 2016 onwards, that the Labour party would like to gain some credibility on that front.
We are in danger of not acknowledging that the world in which we operate is based on risk. The reason why we call what was previously known as the Indian variant the delta variant is that it is the fourth variant to become particularly significant. I have concerns about the proposals outlined by the Opposition, because we will face other variants in future. We will face situations that shift, and over time we will have to learn to live with covid, in whatever form it takes, as we have learned many times in the past to live with different diseases. If we go down the route of making our border policy the toughest ever, that will have a huge impact on various industries, whether aviation, tourism or the travel sector.
Many of my constituents work in those sectors. I think of the pilots who have come to me and said, “Please let us fly out.” I think of all my constituents who want to go on holiday, but cannot do so at the moment—and quite rightly. I worry that, over the next few months and even years, if we play the game of “We can sound toughest on borders”, we will not act in proportion to the risks that we face. That is particularly significant in relation to yesterday’s announcement, because we are well ahead in vaccine policy and roll-out in this country. We will be in a position where we can live with covid, and we will have to learn to do so. Everyone will have to make decisions about the risks that we face.
I am also concerned about the “toughest border policy ever” approach, because this is complicated, and we need to acknowledge that the side-effects of just sounding tough make things difficult for other industries. Are we really suggesting that we should reach a point where we cannot import vaccines or food supplies? If we go down the route of playing the game of who can sound toughest, is that the kind of side effect that we want to have? I have had constituents who have been stuck abroad in the past year or so, all of them in incredibly legitimate circumstances. Many of them were in incredibly vulnerable states, and we were able to return them. Travel is not necessarily, as many of my colleagues have said, about going abroad for a jolly. There are reasons why people need to travel, and we need to be really careful about nuance and the unintended effects of the proposal that we are debating.
I shall conclude with the proposal at the end of the Opposition motion on vaccine passports for international travel, which has some merit. I am concerned that it will be discriminatory for young people. We are looking at a policy that favours certain demographics over others, and will have a particular effect on certain countries. I suggest that, again, further consideration and thought need to be put into what the Opposition are asking for today, which is why I do not support the motion.
We have a number of weapons with which to fight covid. The key one is the vaccine programme, on which even Labour is struggling to criticise the Government’s performance. There is an additional weapon, which is the control of our borders, to minimise the importation of additional infection and new variants from elsewhere.
What is the right policy to apply to international travel in the midst of a pandemic? A knee-jerk reaction would be to close our borders, and to sound tough on covid. Labour now talks of a ring of steel, but sensible Government need to recognise that no modern trading country can totally prevent new covid variants from crossing borders. Even a country as geographically remote as Australia, which does not rely on thousands of border crossings every day for the supply of food, has not been able to keep the delta variant out.
As for the United Kingdom, 38% of all of our food is imported every day—much of it in the bellies of passenger airliners, let us not forget—and that is just a single example of our absolute need to continue international travel. What we can do is slow down the arrival of new variants and the spread from countries with higher infection rates by prohibiting all travel to the highest risk countries, by limiting international travel to high-priority activities for the medium-risk countries, by quarantining new arrivals from at-risk countries and by aggressive test and trace, including surge testing when new outbreaks emerge. I break off to take this opportunity specifically to pay tribute to NHS Test and Trace. This is an organisation that is habitually traduced as an article of faith by Labour, but which is in fact a highly effective operation that has saved many lives.
All these actions by the Government have bought us time—time that allows our vaccination programme to get to a level that provides us all with an effective defence so that we can truly live with covid. As we were reminded just yesterday, we are tantalisingly close to achieving this milestone, but not quite yet. There is a criticism of the Government implicit in this motion that they were late in imposing travel restrictions to India in response to the emergence of the delta variant, but despite the protestations of the shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, this really is just another shameless example of Labour hindsight hard at work.
As Yvette Cooper admitted in her speech, it was the emergence of the delta variant, not India’s pre-variant infection rates, that changed the risk profile of travel, yet the Government placed India on the red list two weeks before the delta variant was identified as a variant of concern. In fact, it was six days before it was even deemed a variant of interest. The Labour fox is truly shot on that very important issue.
The UK does have a strong policy of restrictions at the border and remains vigilant to new variants, but it is a complicated, nuanced issue. We cannot just sound tougher on borders—it will have huge complicating and unintended consequences. I fail to understand Labour’s call for the removal of the amber list, other than that it is some kind of attempt to politicise public health messages. The traffic light system is a sensible approach, and amber covers countries where the risk of some travel with caution can be accepted if the benefit of that travel is high. It is a classic risk analysis—the risk of an event happening and its severity, and mitigation to reduce that risk to an acceptable level. In business, we do it all the time.
To remove this classification would be to prohibit important business and humanitarian travel to amber list countries without supporting data, putting at risk even more aviation and travel jobs. I suppose it would be called collateral damage. This should not be an issue for party manoeuvres. We should not be trying to out-tough each other in areas such as this. Labour should be working with the Government in the national interest to drive home simple travel messages. I am surprised and very disappointed that it is not.
We are an island nation, and we rely on our connections with the world for trade. I am sure that many Members would, like me, celebrate and congratulate the Government on the historic trade deal that was agreed today. We rely on our connections to get freight and to meet our friends and family. Many businesses and jobs rely on international travel. In my constituency of Runnymede and Weybridge, it is our lifeblood. We depend on our connections, both domestic and international, for jobs and to support businesses.
I therefore reject the premise of the motion that the Opposition have put forward today. They would have us isolate from the world as if we were some sort of zombie island—or maybe a zombie world, depending on how one views the analogy. For all the reasons that I have put forward, we cannot do so, because we are so dependent on our connections.
Our approach must be proportionate. It must be based on science, not on the false “no risk/high risk” dichotomy that has been presented. Covid is here to stay, and with new variants continuing to evolve, we need a system that is immune to them and that can adapt and evolve as the virus does. The Minister and I have had many discussions about the need for international safety standards and the fact that we can, should and must lead the world in supporting international travel—through whatever means, but fundamentally through the use of science and new technologies.
The Opposition’s proposal is backwards. It is built on a world where there are no vaccines and where there is no testing. Our plans have moved on. We have the science behind us, and our border plans are the foundation for safely bringing back international travel as things develop.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to follow my hon. Friend Dr Spencer. It is remarkable to hear how extrapolations are presented as facts in this debate. The Opposition, the party of the crystal ball, would have us believe that in their hands the pandemic would have been brought under control more quickly and more lives would have been saved. However, there is no evidence that even the Labour party could stop mutations of the virus reaching these shores, nor that it could ever overcome its ideological contempt for private sector involvement in the health service, whether in delivering world-class research and development or in supporting NHS testing, track and trace, and the vaccination roll-out.
Without the Government bringing together all sectors, we would not have had the incredible progress in vaccinating our nation that we have had. It is difficult to disprove hypotheticals, and if we look to other countries that have tried different approaches, we must recognise that their geography, population density and underlying health issues make effective comparisons impossible. No country found an easy answer to beating the pandemic. The strategy of reducing the spread until a mass vaccination can beat the virus has been adopted globally.
The Government’s investment in the research that delivered the AstraZeneca vaccine, the early purchase of more than 100 million doses while they were still under development, the speedy licensing of vaccines and the phenomenally successful roll-out have saved many, many thousands of lives. That is a fact, yet the Opposition fail to credit the Government for it, preferring to focus on the negatives. If we had imposed earlier lockdowns, they claim, we would have saved thousands of lives; if we had banned travel to and from India earlier, they claim, we could have stopped the delta variant reaching our shores.
We know that the challenge is far more complicated when it comes to closing UK borders. Should we have prevented British nationals who were returning from India from entering the country before the delta variant had been identified as a variant of concern? They were already required to quarantine at home for 10 days. As the Health Secretary told the Select Committee on Science and Technology last week:
“It is harder in a democracy to take some of the steps that some of the authoritarian countries took. Geography matters. Britain is an island…but we are a highly interconnected island…and a huge amount of our freight comes accompanied.”
This Government have always sought to keep the public informed about any decisions relating to the pandemic. In our democracy, we strive to impose any restrictions on people’s freedoms by consent rather than force, which is how we have seen such a high level of compliance, with exceptionally high levels of vaccine uptake among many age groups. Our decisions have been informed throughout by the advice of our scientific and medical experts, and as the advice has changed in line with the epidemiology, so have the guidelines.
We have a tough approach to our borders. The Opposition criticise the Government for moving Portugal’s categorisation from green to amber, and now seek to turn travel into a binary decision by removing the amber category, but life is not binary. Decisions about the road map as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic need to be more nuanced. We have moved on from the phase when choice was a simple one of lives versus livelihoods, to a plan to build back people’s confidence—a plan to re-engage cautiously with normal activities while the vaccination programme powers on to provide the ultimate protection against the virus.
As a global trading nation with an amazing, diverse population, we have to consider travel not just as a holiday activity, but as one that is hugely important to our economy and our mental health. Many people, including me, have family abroad and are desperate to reconnect in person after 16 months of Zoom calls. Many have urgent family business, including, sadly, attending funerals. With the removal of the amber category, the cost of hotel quarantine might preclude many from such urgent travel and would also mean that families travelling to green destinations this summer could find themselves facing bills of thousands of pounds if the status of the country they visit changes before their return. That will hit those who can least afford it, because they will either have to decide not to risk travel or face a debt crisis as a result. I do not believe we should be penalising those who can least afford it.
The Opposition are consistent in their inconsistencies on the issue, guided, I imagine, by focus groups rather than the science: demanding certainty where there can be none as we tackle a completely novel virus; calling for more financial support for businesses while demanding greater lockdown measures, which would hit the economy hard; calling for extensions to furlough schemes and measures to keep workers at home rather than backing our plan for jobs and the gradual reopening of the country; and calling for the Government to introduce quarantine and then criticising its introduction and then calling for it to be expanded. We are looking to a cautious and irreversible route out of the pandemic, building back the confidence of the nation as we emerge from the restrictions; they are looking to scaremonger.
The Government’s approach is the right one, and I urge the Opposition to back it.
I must start by thanking David Linden for his contribution. We almost got through an entire debate without mentioning the constitution and I was quite worried as to what I might say, but, thankfully, the hon. Member stood up and talked about Scottish independence—and suggested, if I am not wrong, that if Scotland had gotten independence from the United Kingdom, Scotland could be a covid-free country by now. That is incredible; it could be the only country in the world, it would seem, that has no covid. He may wish to correct me by intervening, but that is what I got from his contribution.
The hon. Gentleman suggested, too, that had Scotland been independent it might have taken different decisions from those of the UK Government, and I dare say that that might have been the case, but given the huge swathes of powers the Scottish Government already have over public health, transport, education, tourism and culture, it is incredible that just about every single decision has, with some exceptions, mirrored the decisions made by the UK Government, with some changes in terms of the timeline. I dare say we will find out when the promised public inquiry into covid in Scotland ever happens exactly what those decisions may have been that would have been so different from those taken by the UK Government.
I would also like to thank the Opposition for securing this debate today, because while I do not agree with their motion for reasons I shall expand on shortly, this is an incredibly serious issue that deserves to be debated in the House.
Before I go on, I should express or declare somewhat of an interest: my wife, being a Swedish national, has now not been able to see her family for a year and a half, so the restrictions on international travel are being felt very keenly indeed. As my hon. Friend Jo Gideon just mentioned, when we debate this topic we should remember that in talking about travel abroad we are not talking about people going off on holiday to lie in the sun; we are talking about families and friends being separated now for an incredibly long period of time. When the Government announced that loved ones were able to hug once again in their homes in the United Kingdom, for those people with family overseas those hugs felt a very long way off indeed.
Before I go on, I would also like to echo the passionate words of my hon. Friend Huw Merriman—who, sadly, is no longer in his place—in support of the aviation sector. Thousands and thousands of jobs across the country depend directly on or in support of a thriving aviation sector; those people do not want to be on furlough, and their employers—the airlines, the airport operators, the support services—do not want to be bailed out. They want to get on and do their job; to borrow from British Airways, they want to fly and to serve.
Before coming to the Chamber today, I looked up the passenger numbers for my local airport, Aberdeen International Airport, and as a regular user I would like to put on record my thanks to all the staff there from the very top to the very bottom, who have worked tirelessly over the last year and a half to keep the airport open, operating and indeed safe—and I can say with certainty that that would be the case in every airport across the United Kingdom over the past while. But it has been a torrid year. In the first three months of this year, 62,000 passengers passed through Aberdeen airport, but in the first three months of 2020 that figure was 398,000, so that is a decline of 84.5%. This is completely unsustainable. We need to get people flying again, but we need to do it safely, and that is why protecting public health is and will remain this Government’s No. 1 priority.
I was almost struck dumb with incredulity at Labour Members talking about a clear strategy. When Labour Members come to this place and talk about a clear strategy, we know that they are on manoeuvres. They have never been able to come up with a coherent policy for international travel. Having called for a quarantine, they then criticised the Government for introducing one. Then they changed their line again to making hotel quarantines mandatory for all of those arriving in the United Kingdom. They have called for it to be less and they have called for it to be increased. They have called for it to be expanded and they have called for the amber list to go. It is incredibly hard to keep up.
The motion today would fail to simplify the current arrangements, and instead would create further problems and cause much greater confusion. In removing any middle ground by removing the amber list, which is what they propose today—for which, may I add, there still exists a strictly overseen, mandatory 10-day quarantine period—how do we decide where the cut-off point is between the green and the red, and what about those countries that are placed on the red list yet have far fewer cases than any other countries on that same list? It makes no sense. Such a two-tier system would no doubt cause further disruption to the aviation sector—an aviation sector the Labour party claims enthusiastically to support. The current traffic light system strikes the right balance, I believe, between caution and pragmatism, mitigating the risks of new variants while also allowing travel for essential reasons, and that is why I oppose the Opposition’s motion.
I thank all Members who have taken part in today’s Opposition day debate. I also repeat the thanks that have been offered to our vital NHS staff, to the military who are supporting its efforts and to all those in our airports, our airlines and, of course, our Border Force, who are working hard to make sure that our country can keep on moving, even in these very difficult times.
As with all Opposition day debates, of course, the Tory Whips Office has been busy sending out the top attack lines. They were distributed with gusto, and congratulations on that. What did not happen, unfortunately, was a genuine exchange about how we can navigate what is—this was said in the debate—a nuanced and very difficult period. How do we land in a way that supports a very key industry, but keeps our borders safe?
Yesterday the nation was watching, at 6 o’clock, the Prime Minister’s press conference. After gearing up for freedom day, as people were promised, over the intervening months and weeks, they were looking forward to getting back to a sense of normality. After so many sacrifices—people losing their jobs, people losing loved ones—and the nation rallying together to try to get us all through this together, naturally people want to know that the end is in sight, that the light is at the end of the tunnel and that their sacrifices have made a material difference.
People also want to know that the Government can be true to their word, and I am afraid that, again, the Government have been found wanting. Not for the first time—we have heard it before—the words do not match the reality. They said we will do “whatever it takes”, but that was not the reality for the self-employed and many parts of our economy. They said we will have a “world-beating” track and trace system, but that was not the experience of local authorities that had to deal with Serco call centres. They said, cruelly, that we will have a “protective ring” around our care homes, but we all know the human price that was paid when the words did not match the reality.
The Government will argue and they have argued—and they have sent out their Back Benchers to make this case—that these restrictions are required because we do not want to undermine the vaccination programme and that, as we are so close, let us just prolong the restrictions a bit longer and get through this together. That is true, which is why we recognise that the restrictions have to go on that bit longer, but the situation in which we find ourselves was entirely avoidable. That is where this debate leads us: it is about holding the Government to account for the decisions they make and their impact.
At the same time as Pakistan and Bangladesh were added to the red list there were calls for India to be added. With the delay in adding India to the red list, some 20,000 passengers flew into the UK, potentially carrying the delta variant that is now so prominent throughout our country. Some 20,000 passengers arrived in that time. The Government have not been clear about the data they are relying on and that informed that decision. They flip-flop between pointing to one piece of evidence and another, but every single time the evidence is tested, it does not hold up to scrutiny. The public want to know whether the sacrifices they are expected to make will make a difference at all. The Government need to be careful, because the more they send the public to the top of the hill only to let them down again, the more we will see public confidence diminish. We cannot afford that: we need the public of this country on our side.
We all know the real reason and why the Government will not release the data: if they were to release it, the data would show that India absolutely should have been put on the red list at the same time as Pakistan and Bangladesh were. That is what the data would show, but that did not sit comfortably with the Prime Minister, who was planning his trade visit. That was the real reason why the change was delayed. That one trade visit—that photocall and bit of publicity—was worth more than jobs in hospitality, in our wedding industry and in tourism and aviation. The photo shoot, the propaganda—it just was not. The Government say that it has to be about following the data and we absolutely believe that—we have been saying that from day one—but when tested, I am afraid they just do not pass the test.
We have heard some fantastic comments today, and I again thank all Members for taking part in an important debate. As the House would expect, I have a great deal of respect for the Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman, who unfortunately is not in his place as we wrap up the conversation. He has done a good job of holding the Government to account and scrutinising the data, but I found his current position, expressed in this Opposition day debate, frankly quite baffling. To suggest that aviation is not asking for a bail-out completely contradicts every conversation I have had with airline operators, airport operators and people in the wider supply chain. They are crying out for financial support.
Our airports have kept supplies, including of the vaccine, coming into this country. Their operating costs cannot be reduced any more than they have been. By the way, the Government take a third of many airports’ operating costs in taxes and levies; that has not reduced but has continued. While airports have continued to keep the show on the road, they have had to deal with incoming passengers from high-risk countries—the red-list countries. They have had to get additional staff and put in additional measures, and the additional costs that have come with that have been significant. That has combined with the lack of consumer confidence.
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, laid out the case succinctly. The delta variant accounts for 40,000 cases in this country. The Government knew on
Some have pointed out a world of difference between red-list countries and amber-list countries, but they can actually be very close in respect of the risks they present. Why is someone who arrives from a red-list country escorted on to a coach and put into a 10-day quarantine in a secure hotel, but someone who arrives from an amber-list country can just go on the tube? They go home and the people they go home to do not have to self-isolate in the same way as the person who has arrived does, despite the fact that they could well be carrying the virus.
All we are asking for is a simplified system: it is either safe to go or it is not safe to go. If it is safe to go, we should give people the confidence to get back to flying and to take the holiday they deserve with absolute confidence; if it is not, it should be absolutely clear. We have heard Members on the Back Benches say that, in some cases, travel to amber-list countries is safe. At the same time, Ministers are telling members of the public not to travel to amber-list countries. Even the Government cannot make up their mind about the status of the amber list, let alone the public. The list also does not talk about what it means for the host country. It is all very well saying that we have a green list of countries that are safe to fly to, but they could have incoming restrictions that means it is impossible for British travellers to go there in a way that makes a break meaningful.
There have been plenty of misinterpretations of Labour’s position. We have been absolutely clear from the outset that any intervention taken in isolation will not keep this country safe. There should be a number of interventions, which, taken together, provide the protection that this country needs and that the public of this country deserve.
When we intervened on the 14-day quarantine, our criticism was twofold. First, we were late coming to that decision. We saw millions of passengers enter our country with no restrictions at all—one of the last countries in the world where they could do so. The 14-day quarantine did not take into account the risk that different countries pose. On that we are clear, countries and nations do not carry the virus; individuals carry the virus. It could well be that the virus is more widespread in certain countries—that follows a logic—which means that we must have a system that, first, accounts for higher-risk countries, and that, secondly, deals with the individuals who are coming into the country to make sure that they are tested, traced and, if they are a risk, quarantined.
Interestingly, we said, “Let’s get a system in place that deals with pre-testing, testing on arrival and then a further test a number of days afterwards to reduce the need to quarantine.” Call it hindsight, but the Government soon followed suit, and that is exactly what the Government have put in place. We have plenty of other ideas if the Government want to listen. We are happy to offer them, too. Providing that the evidence base is there and it is followed in the right way, then we on the Labour Benches will always support the Government effort, because the truth is that we need the Government to succeed. If the Government of the day do not succeed, we will not defeat the virus and none of us will succeed in beating the virus.
We had fantastic contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), and for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones). All really homed in on the data. What do we know that points to why India was not on the red-list of countries that has led to the restrictions being extended and livelihoods potentially being affected? I am afraid that the Government have not come up with a compelling answer at all. It is all well and good for them to say that any ideas and suggestions that are put forward are not worth the paper they are written on, and then to dismiss them out of hand, which is exactly what has happened from day one. With the Government found wanting, we may raise the issue again, but they will come out with the usual spiel—that it is all about hindsight. However, on borders, on keeping the country safe, on quarantine, on pre-testing, and on having a clear system with our international partners, we have been absolutely consistent and have led from the front from day one.
The Government need to focus now on what Labour is saying today, because we have been leading from the front on this issue. We have the support of the aviation industry on this, and we have the support of many scientists as well. They do not want to be dragged into politics. They want their advice to be taken at face value; they do not want it to be dismissed out of hand and not published because it does not suit the Government’s agenda.
Our suggestions today are clear. First, the Government should take leadership on an international agreement on vaccine passports to give confidence to people that, when it is safe to do so, they can enjoy all that aviation and tourism have to offer. That will support that vital industry that provides 1.5 million jobs directly and through the supply chain. They should scrap the amber list, but then, within the red and the green lists, they should publish a direction of travel, so, if a country is on the green list today, is it going in the right direction or the wrong direction? There will be a number of people who booked a holiday in Portugal who will be wishing that they had not.
We are also asking for a robust hotel quarantine system. The Government need to do far more to ensure that the demand can be satisfied. We need to learn to live with covid—that has been stated a number of times—so what on earth are the Government doing to ensure that the supply of hotel accommodation can meet what could be increasing demand?
Finally, we need an aviation sector deal to ensure that that critical industry can build back from a point of strength, not weakness. We must ensure that we are a world leader in aviation and, critically, that we meet our climate change objectives by supporting it to grow from a point of strength, leading the world in clean aviation technology and supporting new jobs and new industry. That is what we are offering. Rather than looking back in six months’ time with hindsight, I suggest that the Government listen today.
It is a great honour to conclude this important debate. We have heard so many wide-ranging and constructive contributions from both sides of the House. I know that everyone in the House is determined to keep this horrendous virus under control, and the Government’s priority is to protect the public and the gains that we have made through the roll-out of our world-leading vaccine programme. I know that I speak for everyone in the House when I pay tribute, as many hon. and right hon. Members have, to all those involved in that roll-out.
We have some of the toughest border measures in the world to protect our country. We are taking a cautious, robust, sustainable approach to opening up international travel at a time when the vaccine roll-out is ongoing and infection rates are low. Everyone in this House wants to see international travel reopen fully as soon as it is safe for it to do so, as was said so eloquently by a number of Members, particularly my hon. Friend Dr Spencer. That is for all the reasons we have heard: to support the travel businesses that are so important to our constituencies and our country, and to enable people to see the friends and family that they have been separated from for so long.
That was put hugely eloquently by my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), who quite rightly pointed out that families have been kept apart. This is about far more than holidays, important though the travel business of course is. It is important, too, for people to do business and, yes, for people to go abroad and see the wonders of the world. That is something that, when it is safe, we all want to do.
However, there are those urging us to take tougher measures. They include the Opposition, of course, as well as the hon. Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones). It is essential that any steps we take around international travel are safe, sustainable and proportionate. There are difficult decisions to be taken in government. We heard them explained so brilliantly by my hon. Friend Lee Rowley. Those difficult decisions are what being in government is all about.
This is not just about taking difficult decisions; it is about taking them quickly, in a timely manner, so that they are effective. Why did it take 22 days for the Government to put India on the red list after the delta variant was first identified?
The hon. Member is quite right: of course it is essential to make the difficult decisions, to make them quickly and to get them right. I will explain in just a moment how we have done that.
Before I do so, on quarantine measures, the Opposition have called for
“a clear, simply understood and proper hotel quarantine scheme in operation at the UK border to minimise the risk of introduction of new variants into the UK”.
As we heard from my hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew among many others, that is exactly what we have in place. Currently, every passenger is checked by Border Force and the brilliant Test and Trace scheme, to which my hon. Friend Mark Fletcher quite rightly paid tribute and which has been running for so many months now.
On arrival in the UK, passengers required to enter managed quarantine will be met at passport control and guided through baggage reclaim and customs to the dedicated hotel transport, where they will be transported to their hotel. Direct flights from red list countries are only able to arrive into dedicated facilities at airports, including entire terminals, so long as passengers are segregated from other arrivals. At present, Birmingham and Heathrow airports are both operating dedicated facilities, and that may expand to include other airports in the future.
New variants present a worldwide challenge, as we have heard today. My hon. Friend Lee Rowley told us how many countries have experienced the challenges of variants, as did my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood. The Government continue to monitor new variants closely, and it is worth remembering that approximately 40% of the world’s sequencing capability is found in the UK. We have also put in place enhanced contact tracing for individuals identified as having a new variant, in order to minimise onward transmission. The new measures build on the tough action that the Government have already taken to increase security against the new variants from abroad.
We will keep all our measures under constant review to ensure that they remain necessary and proportionate. There are checkpoints in June, July and October. The measures are not set in stone; what we have designed is intended to be adaptable to the evolving epidemiological picture, and the UK Government are prepared to take action at any time to protect public health.
I notice that today the Opposition are trying to produce some sort of dodgy dossier, with a timeline of dates relating to our borders policy. The first date in that document is
Let me give the House some more dates that the Opposition might find interesting. On
“the government’s quarantine measures to be lessened.”
I thought that, by intervening, I would allow the Minister a few seconds to sit down and bring himself back together. As he knows, in the original quarantine, where people were asked to self-isolate at home, only 1% of those who were asked to do so were contacted.
That does not answer the point remotely; I am disappointed. If the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with that, let us fast-forward to this year for a real fiesta of inconsistency.
Let us look at what actually happened. The delta variant did not become a variant of concern until
This morning the shadow Home Secretary—Nick Thomas-Symonds, who I am delighted to see back this place—was unable to say when he would have acted on the delta variant. What he seems to be suggesting, as most of the Opposition seem to be suggesting today, is that they would red-list any country any time they saw a mutation. The right hon. Gentleman should be aware that at any given time there are hundreds of mutations. Are hon. Members seriously saying that we should stop all travel from wherever, whenever there is a mutation?
The hon. Member clearly was not listening to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire when he listed all the countries in the world where the delta variant is now becoming dominant.
Let us look at another aspect of the Opposition’s policy, in which the right hon. Member for Torfaen championed Australia and New Zealand and said we should emulate them to keep out variants of concern. Given that Melbourne now has the delta variant, I am somewhat confused as to how he thinks that would have helped. He ought to listen to my hon. Friend Angela Richardson. Another factor he ought to remember is the many citizens from those two countries who are currently unable to get back to their own country. Is Labour going to choose who gets to come back and who does not? Is that what is really proposed?
Exactly what is the right hon. Gentleman proposing? The Opposition cannot tell us how long they would keep the borders closed, they cannot say when they would have red-listed India, and they cannot say how freight would keep flowing. We have heard that 40% of our freight comes in and out in the bellies of passenger aircraft. Opposition Members do not even realise that there is a problem there, let alone try to address it.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen said, in answer to my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, that he wanted to see a growing green list, but in the motion he says he wants to maintain a “tightly managed Green List”. They are proposing closing down and opening up simultaneously. That is the level of policy we have from the Opposition. They play politics, but they do not have policies. They are drifting, desperate, and wise only after the event. They do not have a plan. It is this Government who are working to keep people safe and get our country through the pandemic, with strong border measures, providing testing and rolling out vaccines, and with a plan and a purpose. That is why people put their trust in us.