The transport secretary has defended the government’s support of the travel industry throughout Covid.
Fielding questions from MPs in the House of Commons after announcing the easing of testing restrictions on arrivals into the UK, Grant Shapps said: “Support comes from getting airlines back in the sky.”
It came in response to the Scottish National Party’s Gavin Newlands saying the furlough scheme “wasn’t enough” for the industry.
The transport secretary also said support for the travel industry “has now reached £8 billion” through “not just the job retention programme but also loans and assistance to those on the ground”.
He later said he had been in “constant contact” with airports such as Heathrow and airlines and said aviation minister Robert Courts was having those discussions “day in, day out”. But Shapps said: “We commit to redouble our efforts with them.”
Newlands suggested devolved administrations had “not been given adequate time” to make simultaneous announcements on travel restrictions at previous updates – in an attack on Shapps’ comments to Labour’s Welsh government for being “slow” to follow Westminster’s lead.
Shapps replied by quoting the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association’s previous remarks that the sector had been “sacrificed by the SNP” and told Newlands to “look closer to home”.
Newlands questioned why the testing announcement had at first been made by prime minister Boris Johnson to the media before it was made by Shapps to the House of Commons, suggesting it was to “save [Johnson’s] skin” – which Shapps did not address in his response.
Transport Select Committee chairman Huw Merriman said the changes are “surely the evidence that [the public] needs to feel confident to book with certainty”.
But he asked Shapps to “make sure there is a culture across Whitehall that if there are bumps in the road international travel is not the sector that has to be made example of and that we will continue to support international travel and all those fantastic people who work in it.”
Shapps reiterated his pledge to work on global measures but said “I do give that commitment” adding: “We will always act quickly if we have to but I believe the days of lockdowns at the borders have passed.”
Asked what he was doing to encourage other countries to remove testing restrictions for travel, in line with World Health Organization advice, Shapps said that other countries could “get international travel up and running faster” if they get their levels of booster jabs to the same rate as the UK.
Asked by Labour’s Ben Bradshaw why the government is keeping the Passenger Locator Form in place, despite vowing to “simplify” it by the end of February, Shapps said: “It is our only way of distinguishing between someone who is vaccinated and unvaccinated if they are to use e-gates when they come into this country.”
And he said “a lot of work has been done to also makes the e-gate so it reads the passport number and refers it back to the Passenger Locator Form and knows whether that individual has had to take a pre-departure test as those who have not been vaccinated would.
“So it’s there for a critical reason.”
Questioned on why he couldn’t bring in the changes to testing policy before February 11, Shapps said “it takes a little bit of time to put those technical changes in place and indeed bring all four nations along with us in the process. The good news is it will be ready for the half-term break.”
Shapps was also asked if he would continue to monitor testing firm who Henry Smith, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Future of Aviation said were “ripping-off” customers.
He said: “I absolutely commit to do that. I share the frustration that the public has had that on occasions these companies, in some cases, not behaved appropriately.”
However, he said “the vast majority” testing firms have “provided an excellent private sector provision, without which we wouldn’t have had capacity within the NHS”, and added: “Colleagues from the Department for Health and Social Care are on the case.”
He defended the private sector’s role in testing for travel, saying that in Wales – where only NHS tests were allowed – meant “Welsh people were having to pay more for their tests”.
“Of course removing the necessity to have tests removes a large part of the need for that marketplace,” he added.