Sir Graham Brady is Chairman of the 1922 Committee and is MP for Altrincham and Sale West.
This week the UK passed an important milestone for its vaccination programme, with more than 30 million people, over 50 per cent of the UK adult population, now having been vaccinated. As the country begins the irreversible process of rolling back its Covid-19 restrictions, this enviable position affords the UK with opportunities to lead the world and open up international travel, reconnecting businesses, communities and families as we approach the summer.
On April 12, the Global Travel Taskforce will report to the Prime Minister with recommendations on how safely to resume international air travel. The anticipated re-opening of the skies on May 17 is still nearly ten weeks away, a lifetime in the age of Covid.
That the UK could consider throwing away a major advantage of the world-leading vaccine rollout through an excess of caution on air travel, particularly prompted by a theoretical risk from imported variants, is almost unthinkable. It has to be data, not dogma, that wins through. Keeping our borders closed and our skies shut while the domestic economy fully opens up would be a mistake. It confuses a genuine public desire for robust and secure health measures at the border with an impression that this requires global isolation and ignores the pleas of millions desperate for a return to something nearer to normality.
And “normality” does not just mean summer holidays. Air travel plays a critical but underplayed wider role in our economy – it’s the lifeblood of thousands of businesses which rely upon the UK’s world class levels of international connectivity to trade, and for inward investment. Being shut off from the US alone, for example, costs the UK economy over £30 million a day, and hundreds of thousands of retail and tourism jobs in our cities are in peril if we are not able to bring visitors to our shores once again this summer.
But besides economics, it is also the right thing to do. Where it is safe to travel, with appropriate measures in place, people should be permitted to see friends and family (not forgetting that one in seven people living in the UK was born overseas), or to take a much-deserved break. It would be perverse if in June you can go to a nightclub but cannot travel to a country with either low rates of Covid, or whose relative risk is mitigated by the fact that the UK’s most vulnerable are protected.
I am not proposing an immediate return to restriction-free travel. Instead, we should aim for a proportionate system of red, amber and green countries where health measures are applied based on relative risk, including variants of demonstrable concern. This would mean we could still see arrivals from some countries banned, with the expanded use of rapid testing to provide surveillance and assurance when dealing with travellers from elsewhere.
All this would be based on the growing levels of understanding about the effectiveness of the real-world impact of variants of concern, for which the evidence suggests existing vaccines should protect against serious illness. The Prime Minister has acknowledged there is “no credible route” to eliminating Covid-19 from the world, and so lockdown restrictions should be removed cautiously given that they cannot be maintained for ever. The same logic should also apply to aviation, which is a critical enabler for the UK’s economic recovery.
Against this backdrop, there will be those who suggest that shutting down travel for the summer is a price worth paying, to avoid any risk of importing Covid-19 into the UK. This could take several forms – even if not an actual ban, you could envisage the imposition of multiple testing or quarantine requirements on arrivals even from lower risk countries that place such a cost and time penalty on journeys as to render travel practically impossible. Undoubtedly, any precaution will be well intentioned, but we owe it to the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend on aviation, and the many more who harbour a desperate desire to return to something like normality, to take a genuinely balanced approach to risk.
The focus for the next few weeks must be on the Taskforce delivering a framework for travel that is risk-based, workable and durable. And it should be underpinned by the well-founded assumption that as the vaccine rollout accelerates both here and abroad, a phased easing of restrictions is as achievable as it is necessary.