The health secretary has defended the decision to remove Portugal from the green list of countries from which arrivals do not need to quarantine, saying “the return to domestic freedom has to be protected at all costs”.
Matt Hancock told MPs today that the government “acted on the scientific advice of the Joint Biosecurity Centre” when it updated its traffic light lists on Thursday.
He was asked by Huw Merriman MP, chairman of the Transport Select Committee, if he could provide a milestone for when international travel can resume, and to publish the data on which it makes its decisions on which countries are on which of the traffic light lists.
Merriman also pointed out only 12 cases of the ‘Nepal variant’, which the World Health Organisation has since said is not a variant of concern but a mutation of the Delta variant, have been recorded in Portugal.
Hancock did not give a milestone or address whether the government would publish the data.
But he said: “Restoring international travel in the medium term is an incredibly important effort that need to work to. It is going to be challenging because of the risk of new variants and variants popping up in places like Portugal which have an otherwise relatively low case rate.
“But the biggest challenge and the reason this is so difficult is that every variant that undermines the vaccine effort would undermine the return of domestic freedom and that has to be protected at all costs.”
Hancock added: “Thankfully, the Delta variant itself, after two doses, gives effectively the same coverage as the old Alpha variant.
“The fact that [Delta] is now dominant in the UK does not put that strategy at risk. It makes it a challenge for this week, and how to handle things in the short term.
“Every variant that undermines the vaccine would put us in a much more difficult place.”
Hancock was also challenged by the Scottish National Party on why hotel quarantine was not introduced for all travel, and why the government has not given any financial support to the travel industry as a result.
Hancock chose only to address the first part of the question, saying: “We have brought in an incredibly strong travel regime, including the ability for all travellers to be tested and of course the calls and home visits to those who are quarantining at home. It’s based on risk.”
Separately, Hancock was asked if he would consider allowing lateral flow tests for travel in place of “expensive” PCR tests.
He replied to say that PCR tests were required in order to allow for genomic sequencing in labs, which can’t be achieved with cheaper lateral flow tests, adding that the government would stick to its approach of trying to drive down the cost of PCR tests through the private sector.
Pressed on the frustration of businesses, such as those in the travel industry, who have to adapt to statements he said: “The fairest thing any of use from the government dispatch box can do is answer fully and frankly to the best of our knowledge and understanding, and that does include things where there is evidence on side and evidence on the other.”