Health secretary Matt Hancock insisted people “should not travel to amber countries” today when he updated Parliament on efforts to tackle the Covid-19 variant now causing most concern.
Hancock told MPs there must be “an exceptional reason” for travel to an amber list destination and “people should not travel for a holiday”.
A leading Conservative MP, Huw Merriman – chair of the transport select committee of MPs – accused Hancock of “effectively turning the amber list into red”.
Hancock rejected that as he addressed Parliament on the struggle to contain the B1617.2 Covid-19 variant first detected in India, warning: “We are engaged in a race between the virus and the vaccines.”
Asked by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt whether people could go on holiday to destinations on the amber list, Hancock said: “No. The government advice is very clear. People should not travel to amber list countries for a holiday.
“We will assess countries that might go on to the green list every three weeks. If a country is not on the green list you should not be travelling there unless you have an exceptional reason.”
The health secretary was asked what level of vaccination in the UK would be required “before people will be allowed to travel to amber destinations”.
Hancock insisted: “It’s a critical question. Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer yet. We don’t know the level of vaccination you need to withstand the incursion of new variants. It depends on the level of transmission and we don’t know [that].”
Merriman told Hancock: “You have effectively just turned the amber list into red. What is the point of me having a passport?”
Hancock replied: “The red, amber and green lists reflect the risks there are around the world. The green list means we think it is safe to travel. It allows for some careful international travel.”
He insisted: “We are cautious on international travel to protect the opening up here.”
Hancock told MPs: “The evidence suggests the B1617.2 variant is not penetrating vaccinated groups. But early evidence suggests the variant is more transmissible. We don’t yet know who much more transmissible.
“The higher transmission poses a real risk.”
The health secretary came under repeated criticism for not adding India to the red list earlier at the time Pakistan and Bangladesh where categorised as red.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, told him: “The government’s border measures have failed.”
But Hancock insisted: “When we put Bangladesh and Pakistan on the red list the incidence of variants was three times that of India. The positivity rate of people travelling from India was low at the start of April. By the end of April it had risen.
“We took the decision to put India on the red list before this variant was deemed a variant of concern.”