The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 June.
“After 15 months of restrictions and lockdowns, I know that everybody in the House is determined to get this pandemic behind us, so that we might finally begin to think about returning to some sort of normality. Decisions over how to control our borders during these unprecedented times are of course never easy. In everything we do, the overwhelming priority is to protect the public and the hard-won gains that have been made.
Last week, in recognition of the hugely successfully vaccination programme, we were able to confirm that in the future, when I will certainly return to the House, fully vaccinated people will be able to avoid quarantine when they return from countries on the amber list.
I want to be realistic with the House: this is a complicated policy that requires time to work through. First, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has yet to opine on whether children should be part of a vaccination programme. They are not at present, and we must resolve how children would therefore be treated under a programme that enabled people to travel without vaccinations.
Next is the question of what to do for people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or are perhaps on one of the non-standard vaccine trials. That accounts for around half a million people and we need to work out what to do in that respect.
There is also the question of how to recognise vaccine status at ports and airports. That is easier for people who have been vaccinated in the UK, because the main NHS app—I should stress that I am not talking about the test and trace app—can already display a person’s vaccine status, but it is less easy to prove for someone coming from overseas, particularly if their country has a paper-based system.
As a result of all this work, we will announce to the House when we are ready to make these decisions in order to bring this system into place. It will most likely be phased in for UK residents first.
As has been said, we have confirmed changes to the traffic light system, which take place tonight, at 4 am. That will change the countries that are on the red and the green lists. There are some complications with establishing the list on a UK-wide basis, including with the devolved Administrations. Once the decisions have been made, it is also very difficult not to have them escape from the various different Administrations, so I apologise to the House for not always being able to get here first before I start to read of them in the newspapers. In this particular case, I heard them instantaneously—or within an hour or so, I should say—from the devolved Administrations elsewhere in the UK, meaning that the story was already out there. Malta, Madeira, the Balearic islands and several UK overseas territories and Caribbean islands will be added to the green list, while a further six countries will move to the red category, as we continue to adapt our system.
Our border regime is one of the toughest in the world and I know, from chairing meetings of the G7 Transport Ministers, that it is closely tracked and in some cases followed by other countries. We are now focused on the long-term issue of how to keep our country safe while getting international travel back up and running. These decisions are not easy and will not be enhanced by simplistic calls to stick countries on either a red list or a green list without providing the level of detail that the amber list helps to provide. In comparison, this Government are taking a cautious, evidence-based approach. I will return to the House with more information once we are aware of the details.”
Tourism and other transport industries need a clear plan and clarity now over timings for easing restrictions on international travel, and the Government failed to provide that in the Commons on Tuesday. Passenger numbers for UK aviation are down by nearly 90% compared to 2019—far more than in our major European competitors. UK airlines have announced over 30,000 job cuts so far, without taking account of the impact on the wider supply chain. ABTA has said that 44% of its members expect further redundancies as furlough tapers off. The aviation and tourism industries need help now. All the Government do is repeat figures from the general schemes from which they have received support, but the aviation industry—the hardest-hit sector—was promised sector-specific support. When are the Government going to deliver what they promised?
My Lords, the Government are working extremely closely with all parts of the travel sector, and we recognise that it has been a very difficult time for it. Significant support has already been given to the sector, and indeed there has been sector-specific support for airports. We will, of course, continue to work closely with them in the medium term.
I hope that I can provide some reassurance, although we accept and have been very clear that wait times at the border may be extended due to biosecurity checks. However, the PLF system—the passenger locator form—has now been further automated such that you cannot submit it until you have fully completed it, which makes it easier for carriers and Border Force. Secondly, we are rolling out an upgrade to the e-gates; they will be able to recognise the PLF once it is completed. We reckon that 51% of e-gates will be updated by the end of July.
My Lords, we have witnessed the chaos of the red, amber and green light system, with the lights changing quicker than any set of traffic lights ever has. We know that there will be variants. We know that, as we and the rest of the world vaccinates more, there will be even more variants coming through, so at some point we have to trust the vaccines. Will the Minister assure the House that she is going to get some stability into the system so that both tourists and, perhaps more importantly, businessmen can plan? Having seen what has happened in Malta in the last few days, will she also ensure that we can get something that is recognised as a vaccine certificate around the world?
I am delighted to tell my noble friend that Malta is now accepting the NHS app via a verification system, so it has gone digital. Therefore, I hope that people will look forward to travelling to Malta. As the Roads Minister, I know that what he says is not quite true—traffic lights do change quite quickly—but he does have a point: we need to provide stability. This is what we have done with the traffic light system, because we have to recognise that, like it or not, things will change. Things will change in other countries; they are beyond our control. They will also have their own issues with vaccination, whether it is successful or not, and they will have their own categories for the types of people that can arrive. I believe that our traffic light system is absolutely appropriate. It provides clarity, although I accept that it may change over time.
My Lords, could the Minister please assist the House to understand what the Secretary of State for Transport attempted to say the other day about travel to the United States? Could she clarify precisely when travel to our so-called closest ally will be available, given that we are both equally vaccinated countries? Why is it possible to fly to Mexico from London and then go to the United States, but not to go from London to the United States when, in theory, Mexico does not have the same level of vaccination and has a higher level of coronavirus cases? Could the Minister please explain exactly what the situation is and, for goodness’ sake, when we can go?
Well, we know that the Prime Minister and President Biden are very keen to return to safe transatlantic travel as soon as possible. The UK-US experts working group is up and running, and it is looking through all the technology and protocols that would need to be in place. However, the US is slightly different to the UK, and it has 50 different states with 50 different systems that register whether someone has been vaccinated or not, so there is a little work to be done. Obviously, I cannot give the noble Lord a timeline, but we are very keen to reopen our borders to the US, and we will do so when it is safe.
My Lords, you can transit through Italy, remain for 36 hours and not quarantine—but, sadly, not if you are an England fan. From abroad, you can come here, stay longer and not quarantine if you are a politician, VIP, official or sponsor. This confirms that, whatever the variant, the vaccines work. Can my noble friend inform the Department of Health that, until this incessant scaremongering stops, our airline and tourism sectors will continue to haemorrhage jobs and will never recover?
As I have set out previously—I agree with my noble friend—the travel industry is having a very difficult time, but we can see a light at the end of the tunnel. We have to make sure that we act with public health as our priority. We must have a cautious approach, because we cannot risk everything that we have been able to do with the vaccine programme by importing variants of concern from overseas.
My Lords, in the Financial Times yesterday, Ministers are quoted as saying that any businessman coming into this country who could offer £300 million—I think that was the figure—of investment in the country could be exempted from quarantine. Can I ask the Minister whether that would have applied to Mr Greensill and Mr Gupta, who have been saving the British steel industry for decades? How does this work, in terms of the medical reasons for doing it? Is this not a case of double standards for those that Ministers like?
Let me explain to the noble Lord exactly what is going on here. There is an exemption from the requirement to quarantine, and it applies to a very limited number of specific business activities where these cannot be undertaken remotely or by anyone other than the exempt executive and would serve to create or preserve very large numbers of UK jobs—500 plus. So, that is potentially where his number came from. This exemption has been very significantly tightened since a version of it was in force in December. The qualifying threshold has been increased tenfold, and its scope has been reduced to permit only the most critical activities.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as recorded in the register. The traffic light system is only one side of the coin; the other side is the restrictions that may be imposed by other countries. My noble friend will be aware that the EU has brought in its digital Covid certificates, starting today. Can I ask my noble friend whether the Government intend—and may succeed—to align our vaccination passports with the digital Covid certificate in the EU?
My noble friend makes a really important point, and that is why it is so important that countries are able to go digital where they are going to accept travellers. That is why we are so delighted that Malta has done that in accepting the UK NHS app. Of course, we are working with all our key destination countries to try to align the digital certification for Covid vaccination, and we will continue to do so. There are other considerations as to whether the countries want us there at all, but certainly it is worth building that relationship on digitisation ahead of any change in entry requirements.
My Lords, why does the GOV.UK website inform residents living abroad that they can travel to their country, but as you click through to links within the same website it states that you should not travel to amber countries. Which is it? When doing so, why do PCR tests in many destination countries cost a fraction of the cost in the UK when presumably they must use the same broad technique to arrive at the same result?
I do not know where the noble Viscount’s confusion has come from, but it is made very clear that when it comes to amber and red countries, the advice is not to travel. Of course, there will be people who will have personal reasons to travel, such as for a funeral, et cetera, but the advice is not to travel and the Government are very clear on that. With regard to PCR tests, in the UK it costs £85 for a two-test package or under £50 for a single-test package. If I look at comparisons, for example, the median cost of just one PCR test in the US is £90 and the average cost for a PCR for travel abroad in Spain is between €130 and €240, so we compare quite well to that. Whatever the cost of the PCR test, it is important that we bear down on those costs and that we take the advantage of economies of scale as more people are able to travel in the future.