15 June 2021
Zahawi responds to debate on Covid-Secure Borders

Nadhim Zahawi, Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, responds to an Opposition Day debate on Covid-Secure Borders.

The Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment (Nadhim Zahawi)

I welcome today’s debate on a matter that is, rightly, of significant public interest. It is slightly disappointing to hear the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) being found out by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho) for really not understanding how viruses spread. If we are going to live with this virus, there will be variants. He has been asked over and over again, “What would you do?”, and unfortunately he has been found failing. Throughout the pandemic this Government have taken all the steps necessary to protect the public and help prevent the spread of the virus.

Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab/Co-op)

Absolute nonsense.

Nadhim Zahawi 

Well, we shall see. As of today, 30 million-plus people have had two doses. We are at 72 million doses in the United Kingdom, and we aim in the next four weeks to offer the double dose to two thirds of all adults. That is delivery, my friend.

Sometimes taking all the steps necessary means making difficult decisions—not that the Labour party understands these things—such as the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday of the decision, informed by the data, to pause the move to step 4 of the road map. We are clear that the public expect a clear message that these decisions are based on the science. Public health has always been our No. 1 priority and we will not risk throwing away our hard-won achievements through the vaccination programme that have only been possible through the work of the British people.

Being led by the data and the science has also informed our approach at the border. The Government have put in place some of the most stringent covid border measures in the world. Each of the measures that we have put in place—informed by the latest scientific advice—adds layers of protection against importing the virus, including through reducing the risk of importing new variants.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)

May I just praise the work that my hon. Friend is doing? It has been an incredible journey to vaccinate this nation. With his leadership, the team that he has put together have done a massive job. We all know that the way to get out of this dilemma is to vaccinate, so I pay tribute to him for what he has done.

We have spoken much about the Indian variant. Would my hon. Friend take a second or two to talk about a new variant that is coming on the horizon—the echo variant—which has been seen in Nepal?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right that we have to remain vigilant. Part of the reason why the decision was made to place countries such as Portugal on the red list, unfortunately, was because we are seeing further mutations from the Indian variant to the variant that has first been spotted in Nepal. That is why we have invested so heavily in our genome sequencing capability and capacity in the United Kingdom. In many instances, we are able to identify variants in travellers from those countries before those countries actually identify them.

The really important point to land is that no single measure can remove the risk entirely; I think it is on this point where the real division lies between the two sides of the House. However, each layer of protection that we have introduced helps to reduce the risk and protect the hard-won progress that we have seen, including for our world-leading vaccine programme. Let me set out for the House some of those measures, which include our clear r assessment of the risk posed from overseas, as set out in the traffic light system; our approach upstream at the border, including the vital work carried out by Border Force staff; our robust in-country measures around enforcement and managed quarantine; and the world-leading scientific expertise informing our entire approach.

The traffic light system essentially categorises countries based on risk, in order to protect public health and the vaccine rollout from variants of covid. The Joint Biosecurity Centre produces risk assessments of countries and territories. Decisions on red, amber or green list assignment and associated border measures are taken by Ministers, who take into account the JBC risk assessment alongside wider public health factors.

The JBC’s risk assessment includes a number of critical factors, including the general epidemiological situation in a country, and the presence and prevalence of known variants of concern, or new variants, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has just pointed out. Genomic surveillance capability is critical to the second issue, and the reality is that many countries cannot match the UK’s world-leading capability in that field. We have been open about this approach, and indeed a summary of the JBC’s methodology has been published on gov.uk, alongside the key data that supports Ministers’ decisions.

The rules are firm but fair for passengers arriving in the UK. Red country arrivals must quarantine in a managed quarantine facility for 10 days and take tests on day 2 and day 8. Amber country arrivals must self-isolate in their own accommodation and have a test booked for day 2 and day 8. For green country arrivals, no quarantine is required, but they must have a test on or before day 2 after arrival. All passengers from red, amber and green countries must have a negative pre-departure test. In the interest of continuing to protect public health, the public are advised against leisure travel to countries categorised as amber and red.

Upstream, the success of our travel system relies on everyone playing their part. Carriers have a key role here and are under a legal obligation to check that each passenger has proof of a negative test. They are liable for a fine of up to £2,000 for not complying. The Civil Aviation Authority has issued 630 fines since 1 February to airlines carrying passengers without the right documentation. International arrivals from red countries are required to arrive at designated ports.

Border Force works tirelessly to check all passengers coming into the country. It is continuing to ensure that it has the right level of resources to carry out its duties, maintaining border security and public health, while trying to minimise wait times at the borders at all times. To put that in context, we currently have the highest level of staffing since the 2012 Olympics.

We have been taking steps to significantly improve and speed up processes at the border by digitising a number of checks, including the passenger locator form so that it can be used at e-gates. Those automated checks happen behind the scenes, meaning that people may not be asked to show their passenger locator form to a Border Force officer, but that does not mean that the checks are not happening. However, we have been clear with the public and industry that queues and wait times will be longer if passengers have not completed the necessary requirements to enter the United Kingdom.

Our border measures are backed by a robust enforcement regime. As of 8 June this year, there had been 328,860 amber quarantine compliance visits by a service run by the Home Office, as well as over 600 fines for breach of home isolation. The Home Office runs a service to check that amber arrivals are in fact quarantining at home or other appropriate locations.

We have also taken strong steps where travel from certain countries poses a particularly acute risk to the United Kingdom. On 15 February, we introduced a managed quarantine facility for those arriving from red list countries. That list is under regular review, and we have taken the decision to add countries to the red list to help prevent the spread of variants of concern to the United Kingdom.

All international arrivals from red list countries are expected to quarantine in a Government-approved hotel for 10 days. Before flying, they need to pre-book their hotel, and their testing package for day 2 and day 8 tests, on a Government booking system. They are not allowed to use the test-to-release scheme for early release from quarantine. Those measures are kept under constant review, including the important impact on individuals with family ties in other countries.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)

The Minister has outlined the protections that are taken, and the work that has taken place has been very impressive. Will he just explain a little more some of the separation arrangements in airports themselves—those points of transit where people come together?

Nadhim Zahawi 

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: as of 1 June, Heathrow has introduced a red list country terminal. Of course, all airports and ports have a responsibility to ensure that passengers arrive and are separated safely when entering.

I am proud that we are also protected by our world-leading genomic sequencing capability, including testing those positives that are discovered on entry. That allows us to analyse the test results of arrivals to identify any new variants of concern as quickly as possible. It not only helps us at home to protect ourselves, but helps the rest of the world, too. It is this world-renowned sequencing capability that informs the traffic light system, allowing us to take swift informed decisions to protect public health. That is something we have not shied away from doing, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Recognising the strong strategic rationale and success of the vaccine programme, we have commenced work to consider the role of vaccinations in shaping a different set of health and testing measures for inbound travel. Individuals in England who have had a full vaccine course will be able to demonstrate their vaccine status through the covid-19 vaccine certification for outbound international travel, while border health measures at destination countries will be set by the receiving country. Those requirements will be set out for the public to check entry requirements before travelling.

In closing, this Government understand the importance of international travel to the UK public and the success of the United Kingdom itself. We are determined to ensure that the United Kingdom restarts international travel in a safe and considered way, when the science tells us the time is right to do so.

Nick Thomas-Symonds 

The Minister talks about international travel going forward, and it is obviously important for the Government to be as open as possible. Will he give a commitment from the Dispatch Box that the risk assessments on India that were done by the Joint Biosecurity Centre will now be published by the Government?

Nadhim Zahawi 

The right hon. Gentleman continues to hark back. Let me give him some details: on 23 April, India was added to the red list; on 29 April—that is, seven days later—that variant became a variant of interest, not a variant of concern, and at that very point, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care insisted that we take further measures because of his concern; and it was on 7 May that that particular variant became a variant of concern. This Government will not take any lectures from those on the Opposition Benches.

This Government understand the importance of international travel to the UK public and the success of the UK itself. We are determined to ensure that the UK restarts international travel in a safe and considered way when the science tells us that the time is right to do so, and I repeat that message because it is an important one to land. The global travel taskforce, led by the Department for Transport and reporting to the Prime Minister, is working across Government and industry to do just that.

We have made enormous progress this year in tackling the pandemic across our country. That progress has been hard-won in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, and it is vital that we do not risk undermining it now. This Government will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that our response, including on international travel, continues to meet the challenges that covid brings us.