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Published on Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Unclear how blanket travel ban could ever be lifted, Transport Minister warns






Borders would be harder to reopen under a blanket travel shutdown, Transport Minister Robert Courts has warned, as Tory and Labour MPs last night clashed over the Government's targeted approach to hotel quarantine.


Closing a House of Common debate on UK border security, Courts said a total shutdown was not the way forward to prevent the spread of Covid, arguing a similar policy adopted by the US did not work.


He insisted the 'robust but balanced' approach - whereby 33 countries have been placed on a 'red list' with arrivals to be placed in hotel quarantine - was the correct way to handle the issue.


A wider shutdown would be harder to lift, as Australia and New Zealand have discovered, he warned. 


The debate came as it emerged that 11 of 105 cases of the South African variant of Covid detected in the UK did not appear to have links to international travel.


It also emerged in reports this morning that scientists told the government that only mandatory hotel quarantine for all passengers would come close to preventing the import of new strains of Covid. 


But Courts told the debate that 'no one should be fooled' that a blanket approach would work.


"We have to look at what it would achieve," he told the House of Commons. "We have only to look at the United States, which closed its borders entirely in the early stages of this crisis and now has one of the worst pandemic experiences in the world, to see how vain that hope could be.


"Nor is it clear as New Zealand and Australia have seen, how borders, once closed, will ever open up again.


"We have taken additional steps to limit new covid-19 strains entering the country through the use of travel bans. We have banned travel from southern Africa, Brazil, South America, Portugal and the United Arab Emirates.


"We will be stepping up police enforcement, making sure that only those who absolutely must travel are leaving the country and checking that those who return are complying with the rules


"We have taken the robust but balanced approach. We have carefully considered all available options, including applying blanket restrictions, but they are not appropriate for our current situation."


As an island nation, but also a global hub, Courts said it was critical passenger planes are able to operate.


"At present 40% of [freight] arrives in the belly of passenger planes. That is the food on our tables, the PPE in our hospitals, the online goods that people order, the supplies that people working at home use."


Tory MP Huw Merriman, Chairman of the Transport Select Committee, also warned of the long-term damage a blanket border shutdown would do.


"I am really concerned about what this policy would do to the aviation industry," he said. "What has become clear from New Zealand and Australia is that, once we bring in this policy, it would be difficult to move away from it.


"Those countries have no plans to do so for this year. The aviation industry is on its knees. This is the last thing that it needs."


Neither Courts or Merriman elaborated on why it would be harder to lift a complete ban as opposed to a partial one.


Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds described the Government's approach as chaotic, with the border policy having 'lurched from one crisis to another'.


Limiting hotel quarantine to only 33 countries risked Covid variants entering the UK from other nations and undermining the vaccination programme, he said.


"Rather than careful planning, we have experienced chaotic scenes at Heathrow, even in recent weeks. Covid is not going away," he said,


"We need this strategy, and we need it now. We have seen that only in recent weeks with the announcement of the Government's latest proposals on hotel quarantining.


"Limiting restrictions to just a small number of countries means that the protections do not go anywhere near far enough, with the threat of new variants coming in from other countries not on the red list.


"In the words of the Government's chief scientific adviser, are they really going "hard, early and broader"? Absolutely not. Again, it is too little too late.


"Even when Ministers made the announcement, they had no date for bringing it into effect."


"The hard truth is that we have no certainty about where the next more dangerous strains of Covid will emerge."


He said around 21,000 people continue to enter the country each day, a situation that will make 'no sense' to the public.


"Britain's borders are still open while the country is locked down," Thomas-Symonds said.


"That is why Labour is calling for decisive action today through a comprehensive hotel quarantine policy, and that would mean a policy of enforced quarantine restrictions on arrivals."


Several Labour MPs called for more support for the aviation sector - but few mentioned the wider travel industry and the hopeless situation many travel agents and tour operators find themselves in.


Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon said:  "If we are to have a health intervention, which is the right thing to do because this is a health crisis, then we marry that with an economic intervention, such as financial support for the aviation industry which has been devastated now for a year because of different lockdowns and the Government's failure to have a coherent forward-looking strategy.


"It is crying out for more support and the Government have failed to provide it at every opportunity.


"The Chancellor promised a sectoral deal a year ago. That is what we are calling for—we are entirely in agreement with him, but he is taking time to deliver on his promise."


He added: "We have no idea where the new strain might come from that would undermine all of this. It could come from anywhere in the world. When we talk about nations being on a list, we of course need to bear in mind that some nations have higher infection rates than others, not least the UK.


"The truth is that it is individuals who carry the virus—not nations. If we do not have a programme in place to manage incoming passengers—individuals who may be carrying the virus—we cannot control it in the way we need to."

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