Henry Smith: Ministers should immediately lift the ban on international travel for vaccinated people

7 Jul

Henry Smith is MP for Crawley.

As the local MP for Gatwick Airport, I have witnessed in recent years the turbulent and ever-changing nature of the UK’s aviation industry. In the three years before the pandemic reached our shores three UK airlines – Monarch, Thomas Cook and Flybe – all ceased trading and entered into administration, the victims of a ferociously competitive sector.

Whilst these failures may have been obvious in hindsight – neither airline was exactly on a sound footing when they went under – the tragedy of the past 16 months has been the impact of Covid on every corner of an industry that until recently employed up to a million people in all parts of the UK. The tens of thousands of jobs already lost, airlines and airports shrunk in size and the UK’s international air links reduced to near zero, mocking any notion of Global Britain.

The travel industry has handled the crisis stoically throughout, accepting the need for Government restrictions even as they starved businesses of revenue, and supporting the international travel red list to help ensure variants of concern were kept away from our shores. It has dealt with frustration after frustration as travel corridors opened, then closed, and as the Government continued to take an ultra-cautious approach to travel.

Critically, we now have the means to break this cycle and deliver a meaningful restart to UK international travel – our hugely successful vaccination programme. There is now no doubt that the vaccines are highly effective against Covid-19, including the Delta variant from India.

This is being seen in the data on hospitalisations and deaths, which are staying very low compared to previous waves, even as cases – principally amongst the unvaccinated, younger age groups – rise. Indeed, the whole point of the delay to ‘Freedom Day’ to July 19 is to allow more time to get more people fully vaccinated, leading us to a final destination where restrictions to our freedoms will be lifted irrevocably, with the vaccination programme having radically altered the balance of risk.

The freedom that vaccination brings should also allow us to travel abroad again, without the threat of quarantine or expensive testing requirements, including from ‘amber’ countries under the traffic light system. Thanks to the success of the vaccine rollout, around two thirds of adults in the UK are already double-jabbed and the number is rising all the time. Opening up safe travel to these people would be a huge step forward, alongside pragmatic policies for children where, as in Europe, they do not have to quarantine if travelling with vaccinated adults.

We are already falling behind, with around 30 countries already dropping restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers, and the EU launching its own digital certification system on July 1 – with the principle being that vaccinated travellers should be allowed to move freely. With the UK’s NHS App, we have the means to implement this policy straight away – so why wait?

It is reported this morning that a version of this policy will be implemented “will happen before August”, with details promised soon. The UK has been unable to move with the speed, pragmatism and decisiveness of others when it comes to travel, putting the future of the UK as a global hub for aviation in genuine peril. Prevarication and delay has consequences, to those whose businesses depend on travel, and to those who have been unable to see friends and family or do business overseas for over a year. The seasonal nature of travel means that the summer months are critical, and a delay of two months now is little different from a delay of another year.

The new Health Secretary told parliament last week that the rapid vaccination roll-out is “breaking the link” between infection numbers and serious illnesses and deaths, and that restrictions on our freedoms “must come to an end”. If we are all in this together, then international travel must be included, with restriction-free travel for the fully vaccinated as early as possible in July a critical, first step.

Henry Smith: Why marine protection can’t wait

8 Jun

Henry Smith is MP for Crawley. This is a sponsored post by Greenpeace.

Our environment is being degraded at an concerning rate, both on land and at sea. In the waters around our islands, destructive industrial fishing vessels spend thousands of hours each year operating in protected areas, damaging habitats, decimating fish populations and polluting our marine environment.

This is having a devastating, cumulative effect. Vital marine habitats like seagrass meadows, kelp forests and coral reefs are being damaged by bottom trawlers, while supertrawlers regularly descend onto UK waters to scoop up unimaginably vast quantities of marine life, harming the target fish populations, and undermining the entire marine ecosystem.

All of this is not only harming our oceans, it’s also harming our coastal communities and worsening the climate emergency facing all of us.

When bottom trawlers rip up patches of protected seabed, they aren’t only destroying important habitats, they’re also disturbing vast amounts of carbon which would otherwise be safely stored away in the seabed.

A recent landmark study in the journal Nature found that globally, carbon emissions from bottom trawling are equivalent to the carbon emissions of the entire global aviation industry. That’s a staggering statistic which gives you an idea of just how much carbon is potentially being released by bottom trawling. Estimated emissions from bottom trawling in UK waters are the fourth highest globally.

By delaying ocean protection, the UK government is jeopardising climate protection, but it’s not too late to change course. If we can properly protect our oceans from industrial fishing practices which are disturbing the vast carbon sinks that surround our islands, the oceans could become our best ally in the battle against climate change.

By properly protecting the waters around our islands, we can ensure that tens of millions of tonnes of carbon remain stored away safely in the seabed, and we can protect the natural processes which mean the oceans absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere remain intact and healthy, long into the future.

That’s why marine protection can’t wait. Every day that we delay, industrial fishing vessels continue to damage habitats and our “blue” carbon sinks.

Thankfully, our government has recognised that there is a problem, and has made a start towards remedying it. Plans are in motion to completely ban bottom trawling in two important protected areas, including the Dogger Bank, and partially ban bottom trawling in two further protected areas.

This is a good start, but the process has moved at too slow a pace. It’s been more than six months since the Government announced that it was considering new restrictions on bottom trawling in these protected areas, and still nothing has become a reality.

If the Government decides to follow this model across the entire network of protected areas, it could quite literally take years, if not decades, before all of the UK’s protected areas have adequate levels of protection from industrial fishing vessels. This would be fundamentally incompatible with the UK government’s own commitment to 30×30, 30 per cent of the world’s oceans being fully protected by 2030.

We simply cannot afford to wait that long.

However, there is a solution at hand, and one which this government has already used, but now seems to be ignoring – vessel licensing restrictions.

This power, provided for by the new post-Brexit Fisheries Act 2020, would allow us to outlaw the most destructive fishing vessels from our protected areas, by placing licence restrictions on them so they cannot operate in parts of UK waters that are supposed to be protected. This could also be used to ban fishing boats over a certain size, or over a certain capacity, from operating in protected areas, meaning it could also apply to supertrawlers.

This would speed up action significantly, and avoid the painfully slow process which the Dogger Bank bottom trawling restrictions are currently undergoing.

The scale of the problem is vast, almost all of our protected areas in offshore waters have no fishing restrictions in place, when they all should.

The good news is the Government is finally starting to recognise the problem. The next, and perhaps most important, step is to act with a sense of urgency that reflects the nature and climate emergencies now facing all of us, before it’s too late.