Curbs on international travel needed to stop Covid variants and prevent third wave

  • Government urged to maintain restrictions on overseas holidays and provide financial support to travel industry, to reduce risk of new Covid variants fuelling a third wave.

  • Cross-party group of MPs demands urgent measures to reduce overcrowding at airports that have become “breeding grounds” for coronavirus.

  • MPs say international standards needed to spot fake Covid test certificates, warning “the UK’s biosecurity must not rely on border staff spotting a spelling error.”

A cross-party group made up of over 60 MPs and peers has urged the government to introduce stricter checks at airports and curbs on international travel to prevent Covid cases being imported into the UK, including new variants that could evade current vaccines.

In a report published today (Monday 3 May), the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus called on ministers to discourage all but essential overseas travel and introduce stronger protections against Covid-19 at the UK’s borders. It sets out a series of recommendations to “ensure that the hard-won progress in tackling the virus is not lost and mistakes of the past are not repeated.” 

The report is based on evidence received at the APPG’s hearing with expert witnesses on Tuesday 20 April 2021. The session heard how airports are becoming a “breeding ground” for the virus, with people arriving from red, amber and green list countries often mixing in overcrowded arrival halls. Notably, none of the witnesses questioned in the hearing said they would be prepared to travel internationally in the near future.

Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Services Union warned that long queues at airports posed a “significant risk” to border staff and travellers, while Professor Deenan Pillay from University College London warned that the failure to separate arrivals from amber and red countries “made a nonsense of things.” Lucy Moreton also told MPs that border staff spot around 100 fake Covid test certificates a day, mostly if there is a spelling error, and that the current system is predominantly based on trust.

MPs also heard from public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally, who warned the number of cases of imported Covid mutations such as the Indian variant could be ten to twenty times higher than official data suggests. He stated that only 5% to 10% of PCR tests are sent to laboratories to check for variants and that this analysis can take several weeks, meaning the government’s current approach is equivalent to “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”.

Today’s APPG report calls on the UK government to maintain curbs on international leisure travel beyond the 17 May, to prevent new variants entering the UK and reduce the risk of a deadly third wave and further lockdowns. It says this policy should be reviewed on a quarterly basis, and that in the meantime the government must provide “adequate financial support” to businesses in the travel industry. It comes after health officials confirmed this week that three cases of the Indian variant have been found in Leicester, linked to travel from India.

The report also sets out recommendations to reduce the risk of infection at airports and ensure passengers arriving from green, amber and red list countries are kept separate. These include improving ventilation and creating more space for social distancing at arrival halls and verifying travel documents pre-departure where possible to reduce airport queues. In addition, the cross-party group is calling on the UK to drive the development of international standards for Covid test and vaccination certificates to help border staff spot fake documents. The report warns that the UK’s biosecurity “cannot rely on border staff spotting a spelling error”.

Finally, the cross-party group is urging the UK government to maintain funding for international research assisting the global fight against Covid-19. It comes after evidence received by the APPG found that cuts to the UK’s aid funding have impacted on several vital projects including work to help track Covid variants in India and Bangladesh.

The APPG on Coronavirus is carrying out an ongoing cross-party inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and has so far held 20 oral evidence sessions and made over 40 recommendations. The group first called for Covid screening and quarantine measures at UK borders in August last year.

Dr Philippa Whitford MP, vice chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said:

“Our cross-party inquiry has heard how the UK’s border management is acting more like a sieve than a shield in the fight against coronavirus.

“Ministers must act on these recommendations and learn from the mistakes made last year, when the premature reopening of international travel contributed to a second wave. With the threat of importing dangerous new Covid variants, we must not throw away recent hard-won progress made through the sacrifices and efforts of the public.”

Layla Moran MP, chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said:

“It is staggering that the government is even contemplating encouraging overseas holidays when airports are already struggling to keep the virus and new variants at bay.

“Urgent measures are needed to better detect fake Covid test certificates, reduce overcrowding in arrival halls and separate out those arriving from red and amber list countries. The country’s biosecurity cannot rely on border staff spotting a spelling error.”

Caroline Lucas MP, vice chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said:

“Ministers are showing a shocking level of complacency about the risks posed by overseas travel. We know from past experience that tourism hotspots risk becoming Covid hotspots, with people mixing from all over the world.  

“Instead of giving the green light to overseas holidays, we should be providing ongoing support to the travel industry and reversing aid cuts that are undermining the global fight against Covid-19.” 

ENDS

Notes to Editor

A transcript of the evidence session held on Tuesday 20 April 2021 can be found here, a video of the session is available here.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has been conducting an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic and has so far held almost 20 hearings and made over 40 recommendations. In August 2021, the APPG called for “screening on all UK entry points combined with quarantine at regulated locations.”

The full APPG report published today can be found attached. It makes the following recommendations:

  • The UK government should discourage all international leisure travel to prevent the importation of new variants into the UK, in order to reduce the risk of a third wave and further lockdowns. The UK government must also provide adequate financial support to businesses operating in the travel industry. This recommendation should be implemented immediately and reviewed on a quarterly basis.

  • In the interim and going forward where essential international travel is necessary, the UK government should improve Covid security in arrival halls at all UK entry points, including airports, ports and international train stations: 

o   Arrival halls should not mix passengers from red, amber or green list countries. Arrival halls must be equipped with ventilation and adequate space to social distance for the duration of time spent in the arrival hall.

o   The UK government should not delay the addition of countries to the ‘red list’. Both where ‘variants under investigation’ and ‘variants of concern’ are identified, countries with such variants should be added to the ‘red list’ and quarantine rules should come into force with immediate effect.

o   As far as possible, documentation should be verified in advance of arriving in arrival halls, allowing travellers to board transport to quarantine facilities rapidly upon arrival. 

 

  • The UK government should lead calls for an international standard for proof of negative Covid-19 test and/or proof of vaccination.  Doing so will improve the ability to detect fraudulent Covid-19 test and/or vaccine certifications. It is not acceptable that fraudulent documents are currently identified only through minor errors.

  • The UK government should maintain funding for international research projects assisting the global fight against Covid-19, including those which support the genomic analysis and tracking of new Covid variants in other countries.