Covid-19:International Travel — [Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 5:57 pm on 24th May 2021.

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[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Transport Committee of Session 2019-21, The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the aviation sector: Interim report, HC 1257, and the Government response, HC 28; Summary of public engagement on covid-19 restrictions on international travel, reported to the House on 20 May, HC 243; Seventh Report of the Transport Committee of Session 2019-21, Safe return of international travel?, HC 1341.]

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield 6:15 pm, 24th May 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerk. The email address is westminsterhallclerks@parliament.uk. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 6:16 pm, 24th May 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 565102, relating to international travel and covid-19.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. Another petition and another covid story that is either desperately sad or frustrating on an emotional and economic level—sometimes both. Governing is always challenging, but since March last year the Government have had to make a series of exceptionally difficult decisions. One issue that has been a source of continuing controversy is travel—who should be able to do it and for what reasons, where they should be permitted to go, and the conditions that should apply on their re-entry. Of course, when deciding those restrictions protecting public safety is paramount, but I know that Ministers have had to make those decisions while balancing a number of competing demands.

The debate concerns two of those competing demands, which affect both the personal and professional lives of people in my constituency and across the country. First is the effect of travel restrictions on people in long-distance relationships. The second is the financial hardship that the travel industry has suffered. Let me speak on the travel restrictions first. While most people who do not live with their partner have spent the last year worrying about bubbles and outdoor walks, those whose partners live abroad have dealt with concerns that are on another scale.

People in long-distance relationships are used to spending time apart, but 14 months is quite a long time. For a substantial period of that, travel has been illegal to all intents and purposes. Even when it has technically been allowed, the cost of testing and quarantining has made travel prohibitively expensive. I recently spoke with a young woman named Katie, who started the petition. Her partner David lives in Germany and they have known each other for four years. Before the pandemic, they used to visit each another regularly. Those trips would cost on average around £200. Now that Germany is on the amber list, the same trip would cost her £600, not including any income that she may lose while isolating. If Germany were on the red list, it would cost £2,400. As a result, Katie and David have seen each other only three times in the last 18 months.

According to a survey conducted by the group Love is Not Tourism, the impact of extended separation on people in long-distance relationships has been significant. Of 400 people in binational relationships questioned for the survey, many had felt depressed and hopeless and said that they were finding it difficult to do their work or take care of things at home. Sadly, Love is Not Tourism has said that 18 people in long-distance relationships have lost their partners to suicide. While suicide is a complex issue and does not have one single cause, it is impossible to deny that the distress caused by extended separation must have played a part.

In a survey run by the Petitions Committee of those who signed the petition, one respondent said:

“I have been separated from my partner for over a year…The stress, sadness and wait alone (literally alone) for any news the travel restrictions to the US will be lifted is horrendous. He cannot come here (to the UK) because of work commitments, only I am in the position to travel to him.”

That comment is typical of those who submitted feedback. While this issue primarily affects partners, parents and children who live in different countries have also been significantly impacted. Travel restrictions have meant that some people with young children have not been able to see them in many months.

I know the Government will have looked at the data on the risk of infection when setting out valid reasons for travel during the last lockdown, but it strikes some people as unfair that one can travel abroad for a business meeting, but seeing one’s partner or parent is treated the same as a holiday. This was a common theme in the feedback the Committee received, with one respondent writing:

“My father splits his time between the UK and Argentina. His wife is Argentine and has children resident in Argentina. Dad has myself, my sister and three grandchildren who are all desperate to see him. I haven’t seen Dad since 13 March 2020. I understand why restrictions had to be put in place, I’ve followed every rule. Dad doesn’t want a holiday—just contact with his family.”

Since last August, the German Government have allowed non-EU, unmarried partners into the country, provided they can demonstrate they are in long-term relationships and have met in person before. Those are reasonable requirements that the vast majority of those in long-distance relationships would be able to meet. If we had had something similar during this past year, it might have saved many people quite a lot of heartache and stress. Unfortunately, now that Germany has declared the UK an area of virus variant concern, people such as Katie and David will face even more challenges to seeing one another.

I understand that travel restrictions have been necessary over the past year. In the middle of our loosening restrictions, the appearance of the Indian variant has not helped the petitioners’ argument. However, I urge the Government to consider making allowance for people to visit their partners along the lines of Germany if we are ever to be in this position again—let us all truly hope not.

Turning to the professional side of the debate, travel restrictions have clearly had a severe impact on all parts of the travel industry. This covers a range of businesses from hotels to airlines, including my very own Doncaster Sheffield Airport, but today I would like to discuss travel agents who, I believe, have been disproportionately impacted, even among those in the travel sector, simply because of the structure of their businesses.

Since the pandemic began, travel bookings have been down 80%. In March, 57% of small and medium-sized travel agents said they did not have enough cash to survive more than six months given current restrictions, and 87% thought they would fail within a year. Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Luke Petherbridge of the Association of British Travel Agents. He stressed that, in addition to suffering all the same pressures as the rest of the travel industry, travel agents have been in a particularly precarious position because they do not receive their commission until their customers actually travel. When customers cancel, travel agents have had to issue refunds out of their own account, while waiting for suppliers to refund them. ABTA estimates that 195,000 people working in travel agencies have already lost their jobs or are at risk of doing so.

Travel agents have not been able to take full advantage of the furlough scheme, either, because staff have been required to issue refunds and manage rebookings, activities that do not bring in any revenue but prevent companies from using the job retention scheme. I know this from speaking to two private travel agents in my constituency. Ideal Travel and Small World Travel have worked desperately hard to keep their customers happy. I hope this will be repaid locally when my constituents are booking their holidays over the coming years.

Frequent changes in travel advice, although many will agree necessary, will prevent travel agents making long-term plans. ABTA members are also concerned that what Government support they can access will be wound down too quickly because of the amount of time it will take for their industry to return to normal operations.

The Government could take a range of measures to help travel agents and I ask the Minister to consider them. Extending the self-employment income support scheme, along with full business rates relief for businesses operating in international travel would make a notable difference. The wider use of NHS covid tests and lateral flow tests can help both those travelling to visit their loved ones and travel agents, whose livelihoods depend on tourism. The requirement for multiple PCR tests was heavily criticised by petitioners, who believe that it is disproportionate and exploitative. One survey respondent wrote:

“I think it is excessively expensive. Seeing your family shouldn’t be a luxury”.

People also do not understand why the NHS test is not accepted for travel, with people instead having to pay hundreds of pounds for private PCR tests. Another petitioner said:

“Flights don’t allow NHS tests to be used as pre departure tests, which seems odd, surely the tests provided by our national health service should be sufficient”.

Therefore, my ask of the Minister here today is to work with colleagues in Government to see whether it will be possible to allow people to use NHS and lateral flow tests, as that would remove a significant financial burden from travellers visiting loved ones and be a more realistic possibility in helping the travel sector to recover more quickly. My ask of the petitioners and the good people of this country is to please continue to come forward for your vaccination and, although it is hard, just for a little longer bear with the restrictions. That really is the only way to get us and the rest of the world back to some kind of normality.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter 6:26 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and to follow the excellent speech by Nick Fletcher. I thank all those who have signed the petition, including 300 of my own constituents. Many of them have heartrending stories of separation from family or other loved ones or of missing deathbed visits, weddings, funerals and baptisms. For some, this separation, with all its consequences for mental health, goes back well over a year, particularly if they were not lucky enough to be able to make use of the limited travel allowed to some countries by last year’s travel corridors.

Tonight’s debate is a useful corrective to the recent media coverage of travel, which has tended to focus on holidays. We should not have a problem with people taking safe holidays—I certainly do not—but this is also about the millions of people in Britain who have family or loved ones in another country, who have been unable to see them and who are longing to do so. More than one third of children born in the United Kingdom have at least one parent who was not born here. That illustrates the scale of the separation that many of our constituents are experiencing.

Outward travel from Britain in a normal year generates £37 billion for our economy and sustains 526,000 jobs. Inward travel generates £28 billion and sustains 450,000 jobs. That does not include the value of business and professional travel, which is estimated by the Business Travel Association to be even greater. Nobody—at least almost nobody—has been arguing that we should not have any restrictions on travel at all. Every other country that is similar to the United Kingdom in its economy and the impact of covid has had foreign travel restrictions, but my concern is that the Government, having perhaps not been cautious enough on travel earlier in the pandemic, are now being over-cautious, as we come out of it, given the evidence and the data, and especially given the success and advanced state of our vaccination programme.

Look at what other countries are now doing, Ms Fovargue. Vaccinated Americans are free to travel. Most of our European neighbours are free to travel with either proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test, which is cheaply and widely available, including at most airports. A number of countries, including Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal—yes, they are popular holiday destinations for British people, but they are also countries with which people living here have many family and other ties—are already welcoming British people with open arms. They are at most requiring proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test, or, in the case of Spain from today, neither, but for most people in Britain, the fact that those other countries are ready to welcome us is meaningless because, with the exception of Portugal, all are on the Government’s orange list, requiring quarantine on return as well as multiple expensive PCR tests.

Back in February, as our vaccination programme was roaring ahead compared with those in the rest of Europe, there was a front-page headline in the German tabloid newspaper Bild Zeitung along the lines of, “The Germans are green with envy because the Brits will get to the sunbeds first this year”. That was a comment on our stellar vaccination programme. It may sound glib for me to press the point, but the Germans and other Europeans are already on the sunbeds in Spain, Greece and Italy. The British, by and large, are not.

We were promised and led to expect a vaccine dividend, but when it comes to foreign travel, we have the opposite. The British are not only under tighter travel restrictions than our European neighbours; we are more restricted than we were last summer, despite having the most-vaccinated population in Europe after Malta.

Some will say in response, and I am sure that the Minister will say later, “Ah, but the variants.” Of course, we must be on guard against new variants, against which the vaccines might not provide such a strong defence. However, we already know—the Government confirmed it this week—that the vaccines are successful against all the known variants. If the post-vaccine reality is that we have to live with the virus, and on that there seems to be a consensus, then, yes, by all means have a red list of countries of concern, but are we really going to keep our borders effectively closed and restrict travel from places that do not pose a risk, with all that entails in prolonged family separation, lost jobs and even greater damage to our economy?

The Government themselves claim to take a risk-based approach, so perhaps the Minister could answer these questions. Why does she believe that Germany, which overall has a very good record in dealing with covid and just as much concern for its citizens as we do, and other comparable countries are allowing their citizens more freedom than we allow ours? Can she explain why the long-awaited green list of countries was so limited, when infection rates in America and across Europe have been falling rapidly and vaccination rates increasing rapidly? Why was Malta, which has a higher vaccination rate and a lower covid rate than the UK, left off the green list? It would be really helpful, to the public and to our long-suffering travel and transport sectors, if the Government published their criteria for deciding whether a country is red, amber or green. The European Union has done that. Why can’t we?

The Government say they still have an islands policy, as they did last year, but that was not apparent when they published their green list, as numerous Greek and Spanish islands, which have lower infection and higher vaccine rates than Portugal, were not on that list. So, will the Minister confirm that we still have an islands policy, and that that will be clear in the next review?

What conversations has the Minister had with her Home Office colleagues about the unacceptably long waits and the mixing of people arriving from different traffic-light countries at Heathrow airport? It is welcome that there is belatedly to be a designated terminal for people arriving from red-list countries, but the rest of Europe already operates digitisation for arrivals and that must surely be possible here, especially for people arriving from green-list countries.

Will the Minister ensure that the inconsistency between what the Government in Britain say about travelling and what the Foreign Office advice says is addressed? That inconsistency has only added to the confusion for the public and for the travel industry.

When a pre-arrival 20-minute antigen test is enough for Germany and most of our neighbours, why is the UK still insisting, even for green-list countries, on an expensive pre-return PCR test, which has to be in English, Spanish or French and so is not available everywhere, and another PCR test after someone has returned?

The sacrifices that people have made over more than a year, along with our very successful vaccination programme, should mean that, as we adapt to living with covid, the UK is in a better place and ahead of other countries as we emerge from this terrible period. However, when it comes to travel, we are not ahead; we are behind our main neighbours and competitors. That is already having consequences in prolonged heartache, and worse, for our constituents who are separated from family and other loved ones, and in the jobs that are lost in our vital travel and transport sectors. Before the pandemic, we were world leaders in those sectors, but “Global Britain”, as the Government like to refer to us, is losing income, business and trade to our competitors in other countries, because those countries have opened up for travel ahead of us.

All I ask is that the Government bear all that in mind, alongside their desire to restrict people’s freedoms to protect public health, when it comes to the important decisions that they have to take on travel in the days and weeks ahead.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

Will Members try to keep their contributions to five minutes, so that we can get the Minister in?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee 6:35 pm, 24th May 2021

Thank you for calling me, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate, and I thank the more than 100,000 petitioners who have made their voices heard. I particularly welcome the case for families seeing their partners, where they are not married, and their friends and loved ones generally. For far too long we have been told that people should not be able to go on holiday. I profoundly disagree and, like Mr Bradshaw, believe people should be entitled to go on holiday.

What has become of our country that we seek to demonise those who wish to go on holiday? For a lot of people, this is about a trip abroad to see their loved ones and those they are in a relationship with, whom they have not seen for over a year in certain circumstances. To me, that demonstrates a need for compassion so as to allow those individuals to get back to see their families, friends and loved ones. I absolutely get behind the e-petitioners; they have my full support to ensure that not just they, but others who have legitimate reasons to do so, are able to travel abroad. I believe that is now safe and proportionate.

I am grateful to the e-petitioners because the Transport Committee has been able to tag on to this debate the two reports in which we made our recommendations to Government. In the first report, dated 9 March this year, we pushed for the Government to ensure that the global travel taskforce recommendations were published by 12 April to unlock international travel by 17 May. We were glad that the Government largely met those dates.

Perhaps the more relevant report in terms of time is that of 20 April this year, in which the Committee made a number of recommendations, which are worth highlighting. The first was that the traffic light system should be populated by 1 May to give industry and travellers sufficient time to navigate the rules and comply with them. The second was that the criteria for changing the traffic lights should be set out in full by 1 May. The third was that testing requirements should be proportionate to the risk set out with respect to those traffic lights.

The final recommendation was that Border Force resourcing and the sponsorship of digital arrivals should mean that more people could safely come through the airport terminal. I was disappointed when nothing arrived by 1 May, but obviously we did hear something on 7 May. We heard about the criteria, which I welcome, but on those first two I was absolutely underwhelmed by the number of countries on the green list and the sheer number on the amber list. It was incredibly disappointing, for the reasons I will set forth.

I am conscious that I did not check what time I began speaking, Ms Fovargue. The right hon. Member for Exeter had the benefit of a clock, but I do not, so I will give myself two more minutes. I apologise if that makes me overrun.

I was pleased that the Border Force resourcing was stepped up by the Government, and indeed e-gates will come into force as well, so there is some progress there. I make my ultimate plea the Government: 70% of the UK population have been given a first dose of the vaccination, and 34% are fully vaccinated, which means that 60 million vaccines have been put into arms. It is essential that we get moving and give people back their liberties and freedoms—not just for them as individuals, but so as to employ the 500,000 people in our economy who rely on international travel.

I am not glib about safety, but it has been demonstrated that the vaccine is effective on the latest mutant strain, and if we take the view that we can never unlock because there might be a risk of a mutant strain, we will never be able to fly again. There has to come a point when we look at the proportionality, the health risks involved and the mitigation in place against those health risks, which is testing and quarantine, and we then look at what is good for the economy and for people’s individual freedoms. Otherwise, what is the point of having a successful vaccination programme? Where is the vaccination dividend, and when can we return to a situation whereby people are able to visit their loved ones, friends and families, or indeed take a well-earned holiday? We will then prove to the British people that it was worth it after all.

I apologise profusely if I have gone over time. Had I had the clock, I would have ensured that I did not do so.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 6:40 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a great pleasure to speak under your leadership, Ms Fovargue. I thank all the people who signed the petition.

I want to speak briefly on two important points. First, my constituents rely on Heathrow airport for jobs and the energy that it brings to the local economy, as do many people in the areas around my constituency. The past 15 months have been extremely difficult for them, and the recovery needs to be meaningful and consistent to save businesses and livelihoods. Local employers need the certainty that a safe return to international travel brings, and they need Government support for investment.

A dedicated red list arrivals facility will make travelling safer and increase confidence that the UK’s only hub airport is supported as a safe travel route. Government commitments to make that logistically and financially viable are needed, and an answer sooner rather than later would ensure that safe travel for millions of people this summer was possible. I have raised in the House the need for Border Force properly to staff entry points, and we can rebuild trust and keep people safe by employing sufficient staff. Infrastructure on the ground should not be a second thought; it needs to be central to our planning.

My second point is about where we support recovery. I want investment in recovery to be made in places that embody our values. We should not be supporting a return to normal, but building back better. Eco-tourism is not exclusively branding; it supports the communities where it takes place. It is not just the preserve of the wealthy; it can save environments, communities and species from extinction.

In supporting protection efforts around the world, good eco-tourism is about preservation and conservation. It is also about animal welfare, and I am proud to have been a parliamentary supporter of Save The Asian Elephants for many years. Its work has done more than any other to shine a light on unethical tourism, and the organisation’s latest petition reached over 1 million signatures last week. I urge all hon. Members present to sign it. Unfortunately, despite our work with STAE, we have not yet been successful in convincing ABTA—The Travel Association to dissociate itself totally from cruel and unethical elephant venues. I hope that when we think about the steps that we are taking to enable holidays and to open up international travel, we put our morals and beliefs at the heart of any strategy.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 6:43 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on securing this important debate.

I very much agree with many of the observations that have been made by hon. Members from different parties. There is an important message that the Government have to grasp and be honest with the public about: if there is a point in the vaccination programme, it is to save lives and to enable a safe return to normality as swiftly as possible. International travel is a part of normality, be it for family reunions, as has been eloquently said—many of us will know it from our constituencies—for tourism or, importantly in constituencies such as mine with a big financial services sector, for business. Nor should we forget cultural and educational exchanges. We must have investment and a clear strategy for getting back safely to that normality. I am grateful to the 220-plus constituents of mine in Bromley and Chislehurst who for a number of reasons signed the petition.

I appreciate the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman. First, we must say that we do not demonise those who seek to go on holiday; secondly, we must give real recognition to the value of the sector to the economy; and thirdly, we must be prepared to invest in technology. I am glad he picked up on the point about the investment in Border Force and the border.

A constituent of mine who works in the travel sector was made redundant and has now set up a small business herself. She is one of the 60%+ people who were working for travel management companies and have been made redundant since the pandemic. In her endeavour to get back on her feet, she points out the very good work being done in technology—artificial design intelligence, for example—by organisations such as VeriFLY seamless travel. The technologies that they have come up with are used in the United States already. They already work with US airlines and have technologies in operation at Denver International airport. They have pilot schemes and have discussed trial schemes with British Airways. We need to get behind and encourage that.

We must deal with the variants by being fleet of foot and adapting. If we can do that by investing in technology, and if, as was said, we can invest in better separation of people coming from different classifications of countries at the terminals, that is a safe means of moving things forward. If we are going to live with the virus or its variants for some time, hopefully with diminished toxicity, the investment is a long-term one that should be worth paying for.

May I also point out the importance of in-bound tourism to the UK? It is, as has been observed, worth about £28 billion in earnings. It is the third largest service export sector. There are real difficulties there because of what appear to be confused guidelines, an arbitrary approach, and a lack of transparency and clarity about the traffic light system and the criteria whereby countries that are sometimes—frankly, taking an objective view —better than us in terms of tackling infection are put on the amber list as opposed to the green one. Also, we need to recognise that the infrastructure of the sector needs to be supported. There is the question of continuing business rates support, for example, for those still operating on the high street. I have seen a firm in my constituency, which had been in business for 30 years, go under. That is a lifetime’s work gone.

What can be done to continue furlough and support on a sector-led basis? We need a new sector-specific scheme of recovery grants for travel agents. We need particularly to be able to look at the position of in-bound operators because they bring in, through travel management companies, some 50% of international visitors to the UK. The loss of that income to towns and cities across the United Kingdom has been estimated at up to £18 billion a year. Let us be frank. Although domestic tourism is worthy and certainly to be encouraged, and we all enjoy it, it will not make up the shortfall because the spend per head of domestic visitors is consistently significantly less—some £239 to £696 a head on average—so that will not plug the gap, and firms and businesses and towns, villages and cities dependent on tourism will suffer gravely and needlessly.

Our European neighbours, including Ireland, are being more supportive of the sector through their support regimes than we are at the moment, and they appear to be more fleet of foot as to how they put in place safeguards for the safe reopening of international travel. We need to learn from that. With the huge success of our vaccination programme, we need to be in front of the pack rather than playing catch-up. We need that for the long-term sustainability of a critical sector for our economy.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport) 6:49 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate Nick Fletcher on securing this important and timely debate.

I will stick to my five minutes by merely supporting what hon. Members have said already, in particular what was said by Mr Bradshaw and by the Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman. I support many of their points.

There is no doubt that the Government have lots of difficult decisions to make about how we reopen our travel sector as we come out of the pandemic, which we all hope we are now doing thanks to the huge success of the vaccine roll-out. Many of my constituents are employed in or own businesses across the travel and tourism sectors. I hear from them huge frustration at the lack of clarity surrounding the overall strategy for allowing international travel and reopening the sector. Above all, we need a great deal more clarity on how decisions are being made, in particular with reference to which countries are on the green, amber and red lists.

I share the dismay of the Chair of the Transport Committee at the small number of countries that are on the green list; not knowing the criteria for the lists is causing a great deal of confusion. In recent weeks, we have heard a great deal about India, for example, not being on the red list despite its circumstances being more severe than those in other countries that were on the red list. It is important that we have clarity about why countries are on the red or amber lists.

What is most important for the travel industry is being able to plan and to predict, and to look at conditions prevailing in certain countries and think, “Are they on the way out? Have they got a vaccine programme that they are rolling out? What is the likelihood that we will be able to travel freely to that country in July, August or September?” If we had more clarity about why decisions are being made and when we might be allowed to travel to certain countries freely again, that would make a huge difference.

As Sir Robert Neill said, it is not just about the travel industry. We need clarity in order to provide certainty for many sectors that depend on travel. He highlighted in-bound tourism, which is a big issue for people in my constituency and the wider area. My former employer was Hampton Court Palace, and I know how much it depends on visitors from America and Europe, so it is suffering at the moment. It is about our broader economy, as travellers from our business and cultural sectors want to be able to plan for greater reopening in the autumn. Without much better understanding of how the Government are approaching the opening up, it is very difficult.

I want to highlight the issue with testing when people arrive in the country from an amber list country and need to test on day two and day eight. I was appalled to hear from a constituent about the cost of these tests. I had naively assumed that they would be free, as they are for every resident here who needs a test. I cannot understand why we are charging travellers up to £150 for each test. For a family of four who are travelling here and have to do tests on day two and day eight, that is an extra cost of £600.

This petition is about the needs of those who have family, friends and partners abroad. My heart goes out to people who have dying relatives in other countries, which is a situation in which far too many families find themselves. I have many constituents with family and friends in European countries—we have a lot of European nationals in Richmond Park—who are already finding it difficult to travel to those countries, but need to travel at this time because their families are struggling. To have the additional cost of the tests is inconceivable.

If we have a wider strategy to make international travel possible and safe again, it beggars belief that we are charging that extraordinary amount for those tests. I urge the Government to have another look at that. It is not just a barrier for people who are travelling for whatever reason they want to travel now, but it will continue to be a barrier. If it is going to be part of our strategy for opening up, it will be barrier to business, trade and tourism, and we must address that. As such, I urge the Government to look at providing greater clarity about how travel can be made possible, and particularly about the cost of tests.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 6:54 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Fovargue, in this important Westminster Hall debate this evening. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for securing it.

Like other hon. Members, I have recently heard from many constituents on international travel and covid-19 restrictions. With over 1,200 signatories to the petition from within Cities of London and Westminster—my constituency—it is clearly a subject that is close to the hearts of my constituents, and one that should be reviewed in the light of new data. No doubt, we are now in a very different position from the one we were dealing with last year. We now have the tools to facilitate both travel and health, with advancements in testing, as well as the exceptional vaccine roll-out that was quite simply not available 12 months ago. Indeed, so much has changed even since the Government’s response to the petition was published last month, with new data suggesting that the vaccines are effective and working well against the new Indian variant.

I support the Government’s road map, and accept the traffic light system for non-essential international travel. However, when it comes to small-scale, case-by-case travel for the sake of a family unit or critical support network, I believe that there are circumstances in which we could be more pragmatic and reasonable to ensure that people are not penalised for something that could dramatically affect their quality of life. I can see how devastating family separation has been for them. People are finding themselves in hugely emotional situations, and as people get vaccinated and infections fall, one of the things that they want to do first is reconnect with their loved ones, particularly those abroad. After all, love is not tourism.

It is important to note that the issue my constituents are facing is not necessarily the ability to travel abroad. Instead, issues occur when returning to the UK. I do not have time this evening to expound all the cases that constituents have raised with me, but for example, a number of parents have been unable to afford to, or practically be able to, visit their children who are living with a partner overseas, particularly in amber-rated countries. Making parents with custody agreements exempt from hotel quarantine, for example, providing they are vaccinated or comply with testing on their return, would make a small dent in our current guidelines, but have a major impact on people’s lives across my constituency and across the UK.

Some of those parents have not seen their children in person for over a year. That is too long to go without a hug from your mum or your dad, and it would be sensible to adopt an approach for people in such circumstances who cannot afford an up-front payment of £1,750 or take 10 days annual leave away from work in a quarantine hotel. With this in mind, one option could be to open up the manageable payment plan for people who have a reasonable need to travel, not just those who already receive income-related benefits. To the same end, there could be a new assessment of allowing people to isolate at home, or even finding some exemptions for parents who are unable to see their children under the current guidelines.

We have a world-class vaccine programme, which has now administered over 60 million jabs. I absolutely believe that we need to reap the benefits of the vaccination roll-out with open and sensible policies that strike the right balance between safety and real-life situations. This is not to say that there should be carte blanche, but if there is reasonable cause and proof, I see no reason why people should not be able to travel without being subject to undue stress when returning to the UK. I hope the Minister will accept that although we need to remain vigilant as the pandemic continues, we will be living with covid-19 for some time to come, and we should provide responsible but practical help for those with loved ones abroad.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 6:59 pm, 24th May 2021

Everyone has suffered in this pandemic, and people are still suffering. It affects people, businesses and human relationships when, as we have heard, we are cut off from seeing one another in extremely difficult circumstances, which is difficult to bear. I have become an uncle in the last year, and I have not been able to see my sister’s first child for pretty much an entire year. However, we understand why: it is our effort to suppress this disease. The whole crux of our blunt efforts is to prevent its transmission, which means limiting travel and contact with others, no matter how painful that is and continues to be.

Pretty much every decision is based on necessity and risk. Border movements alone have been one of our toughest sets of rules to get right, and the Government seemingly cannot do right for doing wrong. Should they allow more movement and travel through borders, and risk transmission points, or do we shut ourselves off from the world, perhaps like Japan, Australia or New Zealand did? It is a simplistic idea, and, in reality, it is not really possible for a globally connected international hub of commerce that is home to nearly 70 million people, so we manage the process, as we are doing through the traffic light system. That means there are some harsh decisions that mean visiting families, boyfriends and girlfriends has to be deemed prohibited for just a little while longer.

I agree with the approach that the Government are taking, as hard as that might be, because policing what we have been doing is proving difficult enough. For the moment, relaxing the restrictions even further is a risk too far. Just in the past few weeks we have seen the Indian variant spread at the rate is has done, but we are incredibly close to that point because of our vaccination programme. Quite frankly, what on earth is the point in not allowing movements if we have vaccinated over 60 million people? There are already reasonable excuses to visit family, such as supporting someone after the birth of a child, providing care and assistance, generously being able to go abroad for one’s wedding and, indeed, seeing loved ones for funeral arrangements.

I will end by saying there is a topic that is just as big as this: the international travel industry, which has been mentioned many times. It will need more support. While the restrictions are in force, it is absolutely essential to continue the life support, as we have done with many businesses. My constituent Nick Lee runs Broadland Travel Worldchoice in my North Norfolk constituency, and we understand that the traffic light system may still be in place until 2022, placing enormous restrictions on the 20,000 people working for retail travel agents. Indeed, green list countries for holidays are still very few in number.

As leisure and hospitality receive specific grants, it seems only fair that while the travel industry is still experiencing suppressed trade for at least another year on top of the 18 months that it has already had, we have to consider giving it some specific support. When furlough ends in September and many people will be getting their lives back to normal, the international travel industry, across the sector and the supply chain, will undoubtedly still be getting back on its feet. Without travel agents and all the stakeholders connected to international travel, we will undoubtedly see more bankruptcies.

We have to do something about this situation, so I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little about what we could do for those businesses that still hope to get back on their feet.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 7:04 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a real pleasure, Ms Fovargue, to serve with you as Chair, and I apologise for being chronologically challenged.

My contention today is that there is a real policy inconsistency between the success of our vaccination programme and the ongoing caution in our travel sector, and I will make three points, if I may. First, I would urge countries that are successful in their own vaccination roll-outs to open up and send people here, and a negative test result and/or a covid passport should be enough for travel to be fully resumed. Secondly, there is a need for clarity—something akin to the UK road map—around why each country is on which list and when they are likely to be moved between lists. Thirdly, as I said earlier, we need to support those who are employed by the travel sector. As we know, UK airlines have announced over 30,000 job cuts so far. That is devastating, and I suspect that more support is still needed for this important sector, along with support for hospitality and leisure.

To start with, the Government should be commended for the success of our vaccination roll-out programme, which is one of the best vaccination programmes in the world. To put it in statistical terms, as of yesterday there have been 37 million first doses and 22 million second doses—over 60 million in total, as one of my hon. Friends said. It is the best vaccination programme for any country with a population of more than 20 million people, with 89% of all adults having received one or two doses of the vaccine. We need to move as soon as possible to reconnect friends and family across the world who have been unable to spend time together throughout the pandemic.

The speed at which we open up our travel sector is paramount, and we must prioritise business travel to countries where the national vaccination programmes have proved successful, such as the United States, which will lift the burden on our travel sector to a certain degree. And we need one or other countries to be added at this point in time to the green list, too.

The reasons for travel are multifarious, as we have heard. Travel is about leisure, family, business, emergency travel and of course holidays—and why not? In the UK, 76% of people are deemed to have plans to fly abroad in the next 12 months. In 2019, over 21 million trips were made by air for the purpose of visiting friends and family overseas. Also, the figures of the Business Travel Association, whose member travel management companies account for more than 90% of all travel booked in the UK, equate to 6.4 million journeys and 32 million transactions, resulting in £220 billion of UK GDP in a typical year. And that is just by air. These figures are eye-watering and our economy depends upon travel. However, the resumption of business travel can only begin in earnest once the green list is updated. As I mentioned earlier and as I will say again now, it must also include major business hubs, such as New York, Singapore, Frankfurt and Dubai. And that is just a start.

What about Bracknell? My constituency is very important to me. I have 15 travel agency businesses that employ people in Bracknell; my constituents work at Heathrow, Gatwick and beyond; we have hundreds of jobs in the travel and tour operators sector in Bracknell; and there are literally thousands of people who want and need to get away, and that is not next month, but now. We need to open up comprehensively as quickly as possible. And, of course, our country is global; it is part of the international diasporas. It depends upon global trade and global movement, and it is movement that remains essential to getting our economy up and running once again.

To conclude, it is now time to get back to normal. Yes, new variants, such as the Indian mutation, are worrying, but mankind has lived under the spectre of new viruses for centuries and thankfully has mitigated this one with our fantastic vaccination programme. So it is now time to open up safely, and life, as we know it, has to go on.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

I thank hon. Members for adhering to the time limits, which allows 10 minutes for each Opposition spokesperson and the Minister. I call Martyn Day.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Public Health and Primary Care) 7:09 pm, 24th May 2021

Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is a pleasure to take part in this e-petition debate, which calls on the Government to allow international travel to visit partners and family. There can be little doubt that the travel and tourism sector has been the part of our economy hardest hit by the pandemic, and that, of all those wishing to travel abroad, those separated from loved ones have been the most adversely affected.

Often when we think about international travel we think about holidays, so I am grateful to the petitioners, who rightly focus on the need to see loved ones. I know from my own experience how upsetting this can be. My partner’s parents live in Kerala, and we have not been able to visit each other throughout this prolonged period. Now, with India on the red list, who knows when we will physically see Rajamma and Chandran next. Like many other families, we speak daily by video call, but it is simply not the same.

Perhaps the most upsetting component of my constituency case work in this area has been that of separated families requiring international travel to take part in end-of-life visits to hopefully see their loved ones for a final time. In some cases it was not possible. In others it was complicated by quarantine arrangements, all of which made an already difficult situation seem even worse. For a lot of people, the current rules are clearly distressing and there is a need to restore normality to international travel as quickly as possible, but we must be sensible as we do that in the light of the risks that we face and that we see across many parts of the world. We have made so much progress in suppressing the virus and we must not put that at risk now by enabling new variants to enter the country too easily.

The current Scottish position on overseas travel is that earlier this month the First Minister confirmed some changes to the rules on travel from Scotland. From 17 May, Scotland moved to a traffic light system informed by risk assessments prepared by the Joint Biosecurity Centre. Those assessments are based on the state of the pandemic in each country across the world and will include the presence of variants of concern. Anyone entering Scotland from a red list country will still be required to enter a managed isolation hotel and stay there for 10 days. If they arrive from a country on the amber list, they must self-isolate at home for 10 days and take two PCR tests during that period. If they travel from a green list country, they will need to take a PCR test shortly after arrival, but will not be required to self-isolate.

The Scottish Government will of course continue to take the decisions that they consider right for Scotland, and will not sign up to decisions that might put our progress at risk. One area of risk that causes me concern is that UK Border Force has been warning for weeks that it is not sufficiently resourced to handle passengers at the borders. With Border Force officials warning that passengers this summer could face four-hour waits at UK airports due to processing documentation for covid, one Border Force worker has been quoted as saying that

“the truth is that there simply isn’t the capacity for staff to carry out the checks demanded by the government.”

Passengers are reporting that they are waiting at border control side by side with arrivals from red list countries, despite guidance stating that they should be separate. Heathrow airport has said that Border Force is responsible for separating red list passengers in its immigration halls, while the Home Office has said that arrangements for queues and the management of returning passengers are the responsibility of the relevant airport. That blame game needs to be brought to an end, and the Home Secretary needs to take responsibility for those warnings at the border before the summer.

In my opinion, everyone should continue to limit their travel abroad, and when it comes to holidays we should be playing it safe by holidaying at home and supporting our local tourism sector as much as we can this year. In saying that, we must also be cognisant of the thousands of jobs that depend upon international travel—jobs in aviation and the travel sector, and their supply chains. I am told that, pre pandemic, the outbound travel sector employed more than 221,000 people, contributing £37 billion to the UK economy and more than £6.3 billion to the Treasury annually.

In advance of the debate, ABTA wrote to members with its ask for a risk-based restart to international travel, and targeted financial support to see the industry through to recovery—not an unreasonable ask, given how much the UK Exchequer has benefited from the industry in previous years, how badly hit the sector has been, and the likely prolonged delay in international tourism returning to anything resembling normal. However, for many people, overseas travel is not about tourism or holidays but about seeing family and loved ones, and clearly more needs to be done to facilitate that. Family reunion visits should, in my opinion, be prioritised over sightseeing and international tourism, and I commend the petitioners for highlighting that need.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 7:15 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I start by thanking Nick Fletcher for introducing this important debate on international travel and covid-19, following the e-petition signed by more than 100,000 people. As he set out very clearly, all those people have particular personal circumstances—involving long-term relationships and parents and children—that mean that they are in a very difficult situation. Unfortunately, I think that, with the situation that we have seen with the Indian variant, things are not going to get any easier anytime soon.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the very important issue of the effect on the travel industry. Like him, I have local independent travel agents in my constituency. It seems at the moment that they are in the worst of all worlds: they have the workload from having to deal with cancellations and rebookings, but they do not have the ability to access additional support funds, and of course they cannot furlough all their staff, so I think that there is an argument for greater long-term support for that particular industry. The hon. Gentleman also raised a very important question about the cost of tests for people re-entering the country—a topic that we will come back to later.

There were a number of very good contributions today. My right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw set out several important issues, including the economic impact of this situation on the travel industry and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on it. His most important point was that many countries are allowing in those who are vaccinated without additional checks. At the moment, in the terms of our policy on letting people into this country, no distinction seems to be made between those who are vaccinated and the unvaccinated. It would be useful to hear from the Minister why that is the case.

Most hon. Members talked about the importance of the economics as well as the personal situations. My hon. Friend Mr Sharma has a particular interest, given all the employees of Heathrow in his constituency. I think he said that what they really need is clarity and certainty; indeed, a lot of Members referred to that.

As we have heard, the petition calls on the Government to class in-person interaction with family members and unmarried partners as a reason to travel. I am sure that, on a human level, we can all understand that—many of us have not been able to see our loved ones as we would have liked during the lockdowns—especially when we consider that in 2019 more than 20 million trips were made by air out of the UK for the purpose of visiting family and friends. The current situation means new parents not being able to see their families, and grandparents not being able to meet up with grandchildren—actually, many people have not met their new family member for the first time.

The timing of this debate is apposite, given last Monday’s announcement that holidays abroad are no longer illegal, but there are of course, as we have heard, different rules for different countries. It should have been a simple colour-coding scheme—amber, red and green, according to each country’s risk. But of course, as we saw last week, there are as many different interpretations of what amber means as there are countries on that list.

We saw on Tuesday the Environment Secretary saying that people could fly to amber-list countries if they wanted to visit family or friends—something that the signatories of this petition would of course like to see—but then in the afternoon the Health Minister in the other place said that nobody should travel outside Britain this year at all. Later the same day, though, the Welsh Secretary said that some people might consider holidays abroad as essential.

That was three Ministers with three different interpretations in just one day, so it was left to the Prime Minister—the paragon of precision in this place—to clear up any confusion or contradiction at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday, when he came up with his own definition that people could still travel in “extreme” circumstances. That, of course, is also open to interpretation, but it does at least set the bar a little higher—until we remember that the new rules that he has actually brought in make it easier for people to travel to amber-list countries.

In fact, it is even easier than that, because if someone returns from an amber-list country, they can halve the time that they spend in self-isolation by paying for an additional test after five days. It is hardly a consistent message when it comes to what extreme circumstances in relation to international travel means. Perhaps the problem is that there is no definitive answer—it is all guidance. We have had issues in the past year where there has not been a clear-cut distinction between guidance and law. The Foreign Office website tells us:

“Whether travel is essential or not is your own decision… Only you can make an informed decision based on your own individual circumstances and the risks.”

That is the nub of the problem: everyone can have their own view on what is essential, which means there is ambivalence at the heart of Government policy, which I am afraid the virus is set to exploit.

We have spent the last year painstakingly legislating for every facet of life where covid could intrude, from when people could leave home or leave the pub to how many people can attend a funeral, yet when it comes to one of the biggest threats to our future prosperity—variants from abroad—this Government are inexplicably and recklessly letting people interpret the rules for themselves. The ambiguity over amber has to end. People should not travel to particular countries. Do not let them—it is not difficult.

I cannot believe that the more than 100 countries on that amber list all have the same level of risk. As Members have said, it is clear that more clarity and transparency are needed about why countries are on that list. One might conclude that it has been left deliberately vague so that the Government do not have to compensate the travel industry for all the cancellations that would happen if there were proper laws in place on restricting international travel. Last week, it was reported that 1,300 flights, carrying up to 54,000 passengers a day—[Interruption.] Ms Fovargue, should I continue?

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Labour, Makerfield

I think we will pause until the bells have finished.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

Saved by the bell. Although I am not sure whether I am or whether—[Interruption.]

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

Thank you, Ms Fovargue. It is almost as if someone does not want me to carry on speaking, but I will not be put off that easily.

We have all seen images from airports of people from red, amber and green countries mixing and standing side by side for hours in conditions where the virus can be transmitted. That makes a mockery of the sacrifices that people have made over the last year. Then, they move through the airport, on to public transport and go back to their homes, without proper controls in place.

I asked the Home Office how many visits had been made to check on people who are supposed to be quarantining at home after returning from abroad. I was told that there is no data on that, because it is an operational matter for the police. In short, the Government do not know whether people are complying with these rules. The Government could be overcompensating that lax approach by having so many countries on the amber list. As Sir Robert Neill said, it is not clear how a country gets on or off that list. It seems that putting lots of countries on the amber list is a quick and easy way of solving some of the issues in the rest of the system.

Sarah Olney mentioned the cost of tests for those who have to quarantine at home. Actually, it is not just the cost of those tests but the service that people are receiving that is a problem. Hundreds have had complaints about these firms, which are listed on the Department of Health and Social Care’s website. Some people have either not received their tests or not got them in time. Some have not got their results at all and have been left in limbo.

Last year, some of these private companies did not exist, and some had zero experience in the area they are benefiting from, but with the Government’s open-door policy it seems they can request to be put on the list on the Government website if they declare that they meet the required standards and either they are UK Accreditation Service-accredited or they have applied for accreditation but do not yet have it. As of March, the UKAS website said it had received 80 applications from such companies and had accredited nearly 30 such providers, but many more than that are listed on the Department’s website as providers of day two and day eight testing—when I checked this afternoon, it was 333.

I do not know about the Minister, but I find it astonishing that for one of the most critical parts of our defence against covid we are relying on companies to self-certify that they can do the job, and less than 10% of them have been properly accredited to provide the service. We must get much more rigorous in our testing and ensure that these companies can do the work accurately and safely. Will the Minister update us on how many companies are now accredited and what the Government are doing to investigate how they are operating to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to do?

Why do these restrictions at the border matter? It is because the emergence of new variants of concern is the biggest single risk to the road map. We have seen outbreaks of South African, Brazilian and now Indian variants in this country and, once again, the Government have been too slow off the mark to deal with the Indian variant. It was first identified back in February, yet travel from India was not banned until more than two months later. During that time, travellers from India came into the UK without any need to quarantine at a hotel. The consequences are now clear in the clusters of outbreaks we see.

There is a suggestion that the Prime Minister delayed adding India to the red list until he decided that he had to cancel his trade visit to India. I suppose we will add that to the long list of questions he will have to answer at the inquiry. If it is true, it is another serious error of judgment from him. In the meantime, will the Minister confirm whether decisions to place countries on particular coloured lists are all to do with health issues and not also trade deals and other such considerations?

We need to get this right now. A comprehensive, easily understood system that does not undermine the gains we have made is necessary. The Government finally decided to introduce a hotel quarantine system only in February, over a year after cases first arrived in this country. That is inexplicable. That they continue with an ineffective system that is clearly not working and is creating the injustices we have heard about today is also inexcusable. They have failed with their inadequate covid border protections. They were late to home quarantining, late to mandatory border testing, late to hotel quarantine and late to add India to the red list. We cannot afford to have the Government be late to fix the ambiguity and confusion over the amber list as well. The public have made huge sacrifices, which must not be undone now by laxity and ambiguity. The Government need to get a grip of the situation as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 7:28 pm, 24th May 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. First, I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for raising this important issue on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I thank all Members of the House who have taken time for this wide-ranging debate: my hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, Mr Sharma, my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, Sarah Olney, my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland) Bracknell, and Justin Madders. The one thing it did absolutely perfectly was display the complexity of the area and how difficult it is to get to a perfect solution.

I will take from the debate that we all agree that people have made enormous sacrifices, both in the country and out of the country, and that the vaccine roll-out has been a tremendous success. However, I point out that we have not yet reached the under-30 age group. While everybody was lucid about allowing people who had had a vaccination to travel, nobody said anything about those who had not, or what the solution was for them. This debate has ranged from the travel industry to business travel and has covered the Department for Transport, jobs and a wide range of Departments, but at its heart is how we are dealing with family and friends.

The past 14 months have presented huge challenges for all of us, and it is only right that members of the public, like Ms Sinclair, should debate such issues of enormous interest to us. My heart goes out to everyone who, 14 months ago, did not want to spend the past year like this. However, many of the reasons why people make sacrifices, in this country and without, are well known to us all. Last Monday, we took an important move to step 3 of the Government’s road map, in that we removed the provision to stay in the UK. International and leisure travel is slowly—I repeat, slowly—starting again and there is a new traffic light system.

In essence, the petition asks whether family members and unmarried partners should be able to visit their families and partners abroad, specifically regarding the “stay at home” and “stay in the UK” measures, which were in effect until 29 March and 17 May respectively. Under “stay in the UK”, individuals had to have a reasonable excuse to leave the UK. As with all restrictions during the pandemic, no decision has been easy, and none has been taken lightly. Where international travel is concerned, we acted to control the spread of the virus and to reduce the risks of variants being imported and exported. It struck me as interesting that people assume that that is completely possible while exempting people in a whole range of different areas.

I have often argued against the party of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, which has said that we should have a more stringent managed quarantine system. Everyone cannot have everything; we have to have a balanced approach in what we are doing. At the heart of everything is protecting people. We are opening up, but we are going slowly. Where international travel is concerned, we do not want to export or import variants, as I said.

Infection rates have fallen back at points but, crucially, a large amount of the population are not yet vaccinated, so it is vital that we maintain additional restrictions while the programme continues through the cohorts and to counter the risk of import or export. I of course appreciate the desire to see loved ones. I sympathise with those who have not seen partners and family members for a long time. I, too, like everyone else in the Chamber, have constituents who have come to me with such challenges. I recognise how difficult it is for people with family and partners based abroad. The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges. My thanks go to everyone for their contribution and to all those working in the health service. That is what has allowed us to arrive at where we are today.

Acknowledging instances of those with family members overseas, the “stay in the UK” regulations included a number of reasonable excuses—no one appeared to allude to them—to allow international travel in circumstances where visits could not be delayed. I have had constituents—[Interruption.] I will try to beat the bell. I have constituents who have used those exemptions, which include travel to support someone giving birth, to accompany someone to a medical appointment, to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person, including those of 70 years or older, a woman who is pregnant or those with underlying health conditions, or to say your last goodbyes at the end of life. So, there have been possibilities; to say that there has been none is just wrong. People could also travel out of the UK to attend their own wedding or civil partnership, or that of a close family member if at least one of the persons getting married or entering the partnership lives outside the UK.

As part of the road map, however, the Government took the prudent decision, informed by the latest data and analysis, not to allow international travel to see family members and partners more generally, however hard that feels. It was not an easy decision. Indeed, it is one of the many tough but necessary decisions taken as we continue to follow the road map out of lockdown. It is about finding a balance between priorities, including the need to save lives and to mitigate another surge in infections, as well as to avoid putting pressure on the NHS.

Those restrictions have bought us time: time to establish the vaccine roll-out and reduce the spread of disease, time to vaccinate front-line staff and care staff, and time to vaccinate care home residents and the most vulnerable. We continue to make good progress. As of 22 May, over 37.9 million people have received their first vaccine, another 22.6 million people have received their second dose and a staggering 60.5 million covid vaccine doses have been administered across the UK, through the enormous efforts of our general practice teams, pharmacists and mass vaccination centres.

Public Health England reports that the UK covid vaccination programme has prevented about 12,000 deaths in those aged 60 or above in England. Furthermore, it has saved 33,000 hospital admissions for those over 65. Restrictions on international travel have helped us achieve these things and have helped protect people so we can move to step 3. It is important that we remain vigilant and continue to manage the risks, so that we do not lose the benefits gained through the efforts thus far. Step 3 includes a cautious, managed return to international leisure travel, which I hope colleagues across the House will embrace.

I will address some specific points raised by hon. Members. When we talk about opening up, it is important to keep in mind that we had the indication only this weekend that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were both effective against the Indian variant, so asking us to see into the future is incredibly difficult.

On 17 May, we moved to a traffic light system that categorises countries based on their level of risk to public health and the potential effect of variants of covid-19 to limit the efficacy of the roll-out. Decisions on designating countries to red, amber or green lists and the associated border measures are under constant review, to ensure that we manage the risks. These risks are challenging. They are about the impact on people’s jobs, livelihoods and all those things, but they are predominantly about people’s health and wellbeing, and about protecting people.

The decisions are taken by Ministers, who consider the Joint Biosecurity Centre analysis, as well as wider public health considerations. As I have explained, decisions are under constant review so that we manage the risks. I was glad that Martyn Day outlined how rigorous this process is and how we are now in better lockstep with our friends across the border.

We are making progress as we journey along the road map, but we have to remain vigilant. Variants continue to pose a significant risk that we are monitoring closely, and action will be taken as necessary to stop the spread. Border measures, including testing and quarantine, continue to help manage the risks. That includes the requirement for international arrivals, except those from green list countries, to take a pre-departure test and isolate for 10 days, either at home or in a managed quarantine hotel if they have come from a red list country, and to take a post-arrival test on day two and day eight.

Several hon. Members talked about testing. From May 15, NHS Test and Trace reduced the cost of tests from £210 to £170, and day two tests for green list countries went down to £88. These costs include genomic sequencing if someone has a positive test. Other private providers are stringently tested to ensure quality, and they are available. PCR tests continue to fall in cost, to around £100 to £120 for a day two test. We expect green arrival tests to be somewhere between £20 to £60. As the market develops, that cost will keep dropping as prices become more competitive, but I gently ask, is the British taxpayer meant to pay for the test for leisure purposes and travel?

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I understand the point that the British taxpayer should not be expected to pay for these tests for leisure purposes. However, a person who goes on to the Government website now does not need to give a reason to receive a lateral flow test, and we know that for a number of sporting events that have taken place, the condition for entry has been tests, which have also been free. There is not any consistency here, is there?

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

As I say, these things are kept under constant review. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is testing large-scale events involving large groups of in-country crowds. That is completely different from testing those people who are returning to the country. Measures for these international journeys are essential, and it is vital that we follow what restrictions remain in place.

It is also essential that offers of vaccination are taken up by everybody as soon as possible. We hope that the continued success of the vaccination roll-out, including increased testing capabilities, alongside falling infections and hospitalisations, will allow us to continue to lift restrictions. However, we have to protect our hard-fought gains made over the past few months, and we are taking a cautious approach to opening up international travel, given that the risk from those travelling back from countries with high prevalence or where there are variants of concern is not only to the individual, but to wider society.

Some Members brought up the difference between allowing us to enlarge business travel and travel to visit family, friends and so on. They are, in fact, completely different—I very rarely behave with family and friends as I might in a business meeting, so I would urge a little caution before drawing a comparison between the two. Like everybody else, I feel for travel agents and so on in this time of uncertainty. However, they are supported by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the different interventions that have been put in place. Those things will be ongoing after we open up on 21 June, so long as we keep on the road map, and there is some assistance for businesses going forward.

This is a first step, and more opportunities will come along. It is important to remember that, and to highlight that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation looks at the outcome of vaccine programmes on reduced levels of infection, high levels of vaccination, and the transmission risk and variants of concern. I reiterate my sympathy for those who have not been able to visit family and partners, and my thanks to those who have stepped up. Getting to this point has taken remarkable perseverance and resolve, and I am grateful to everyone who has got us here. The collective effort has meant that we can reopen our borders, allowing us where possible to reunite families, loved ones and friends. We must continue this careful approach. It is a risk-based approach, informed by the latest data and scientific evidence and by the abiding need to protect the population’s health and wellbeing, and thereby the economy.

With all this in mind, I believe we have good reason to feel optimistic, although there will be new and unexpected challenges, and there will be some setbacks as well. I have not hugged some of my children for 14 months, and they all live in this country—we have a large family. It is tough, and I get that, but we are doing what we are doing for the right reasons. We are better protected and better prepared to take on those challenges than we have ever been.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 7:43 pm, 24th May 2021

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions today. My hon. Friend Huw Merriman, who is a real champion of the travel sector, made an excellent contribution. I also thank my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill. His point about how valuable inland tourism is for our country is something we should all take note of. I hope that when we do open up, we will welcome tourists with open arms, because £28 billion will really help to get our country back working again. My hon. Friend James Sunderland reminded us of how successful our vaccination programme has been, and I thank all who have played their part in making it happen.

I hope the petitioners feel that they have had their voices heard. I personally enjoyed speaking with Katie and Luke, and I wish them all the best in the coming months. I thank the Minister for her understanding of our country’s sacrifice and her compassionate reply. I know, as she does, that every exemption in this country brings with it another infection, and she also mentioned the exemptions that have been allowed. I agree that a balance is difficult, but I also agree with the petitioners that more economical testing would help with that balance, so I look forward to falling costs. Finally, I thank you, Ms Fovargue, for your chairmanship today; it has been a pleasure serving with you in the Chair.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered e-petition 565102, relating to international travel and covid-19.

Sitting adjourned.