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.