The government rejected calls for a relaxation of travel restrictions and financial support for travel agents at a Westminster debate last night in response to a petition backed by Abta which attracted more than 100,000 signatures.
Health minister Jo Churchill told MPs: “I feel for travel agents. However, they are supported by the Treasury and the different interventions in place and those are ongoing as we open up. This is a first step. We must continue this approach.”
Churchill dismissed calls to relax travel restrictions, saying: “We don’t want to import or export variants. There is a large proportion of the population who have not been vaccinated so it’s vital we retain restrictions.
“We’ve acted to control the spread of variants. People seem to think this is possible while allowing people to travel for all sorts of reasons.
“We’re opening up, but we’re going slowly. We only had an indication that vaccines are effective against the Indian variant this weekend.
“Decisions on designating countries are under constant review. These decisions are difficult, but are predominantly about protecting people’s health.”
Moving the motion on international travel and Covid-19, Nick Fletcher, Conservative MP for Don Valley, noted the effect of travel restrictions on people in long-distance relationships and the financial pressures on the travel industry.
He argued: “Travel agents have been disproportionately impacted because of the structure of their businesses.”
Fletcher reported speaking to Abta head of public affairs Luke Petherbridge and said: “He stressed that agents have been in a particularly perilous position because they don’t receive their commissions until customers travel and when customers cancel, travel agents have to issue refunds out of their own account.
“Staff in agencies have not been able to furlough because of the need to process refunds and they are concerned what support is available will be wound down too soon.”
He insisted: “There are a range of measures ministers could consider 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.”
Most MPs who spoke backed the petition but focused on the impact on those unable to travel.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw accused the government of “being over cautious despite the success of our vaccination programme”.
He asked: “Why was the green list so limited? The UK should be ahead of other countries, but when it comes to travel the UK is not ahead.”
Sarah Olney, MP for Richmond Park, reported “a huge amount of frustration” and called for “a lot more clarity about which countries are on the green, amber and red lists”.
She said: “I was appalled to hear of the costs of tests. I had assumed these would be free.”
North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker called for additional support for the travel industry, arguing: “We understand the traffic light system could still be in place in 2022. When leisure and hospitality receive specific support, it seems only reasonable we consider some specific support for the international travel industry.”
But Baker said: “To relax further would be a risk too far. I agree with government policy.”
Speakers for both main opposition parties also spoke against lifting travel restrictions.
Scottish National Party MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk Martyn Day argued: “There is a need to restore normality, but we need to do that without risk. The Scottish government will not sign up to a relaxation that puts us at risk.”
Labour shadow health minister Justin Madders criticised the government’s “inconsistent messaging” and warned: “There is ambivalence at the heart of this policy which Covid could be ready to exploit.
“This government is recklessly leaving it to individuals to decide [whether to travel]. This ambiguity over amber has to end. One might conclude it has been left deliberately vague so the government does not have to compensate the travel industry.”
But Madders said: “These restrictions at the border are because of the risk of variants of concern.”