UK minister urges Britons not to book summer holidays until lockdown eases
The UK government has urged Britons not to book holidays at home or abroad as it defended its new hotel quarantine policy from a backlash from senior Conservatives.
Tough new measures were announced on Tuesday for travellers arriving into England in an effort to thwart the spread of new variants of Covid-19. Arrivals from 33 “red list” countries will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days, while all travellers will be required to carry out two tests — on day two and day eight — in addition to one they must take 72 hours before departure.
The travel and tourism industry has warned that the latest measures could prove ruinous for the summer holiday season and has called for a road map out of the increasingly strict restrictions to avoid losing a second summer season, when companies earn the bulk of their revenue.
But Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said on Wednesday that people should not book holidays until there was a clearer plan for exiting lockdown, due later in February.
“People should not be booking holidays right now, either internationally or domestically,” he said, adding that Britons should “do nothing at this stage”.
Glyn Jones, the chief executive of London Southend Airport, said Shapps’s comments were “the last thing we need” and that the summer season is “at serious risk”.
“Losing one summer was very awkward, losing two summers would be a disaster,” he said.
Shapps also defended the tough new measures, which include the threat of a 10-year jail sentence for concealing a trip to one of the red list destinations, telling the BBC that introducing a new variant of Covid-19 could result in “impacting on a lot of people’s lives or indeed losing a lot of people’s lives”.
He said that a lengthy prison sentence would only occur for those who “deliberately went out of their way to mislead and lie” about their travel and avoid the rules.
The potential 10-year jail sentence was sharply criticised by two former Conservative attorneys-general. Dominic Grieve, who served in the position from 2010 to 2014, told the Telegraph that “the maximum sentence of 10 years for what is effectively a regulatory breach sounds in the circumstances, unless it can be justified, extraordinarily high”.
Sir Geoffrey Cox, who was attorney-general from 2018 to 2020, also told the paper: “I get that the secretary of state wants to show that this is serious, but you do have to have regard to the overall balance of sentencing policy and law.”
Steve Baker, deputy chair of the influential Covid Recovery Group of lockdown sceptic MPs, also urged the government to show restraint in its lockdown policy.
“We are suppressing this virus at all costs and I really would implore ministers to take stock. At some point we are going to have to see reason and let temperance reassert itself,” he said.
The policy was criticised by the Institute for Government think-tank, which warned that a “partial” quarantine policy could prove “a costly failure — little more than expensive window dressing”.
The report said the government had “not been clear about whether it wants merely to reduce the number of infected travellers mixing in the community . . . or if its goal is to stop variants of concern entering the country altogether”.
Shapps said 5,000 hotel rooms were “immediately” available for passenger quarantine. Although there are just under 1,000 passengers a day arriving from the 33 “red list” countries, he added that the government expected that number to fall. “We can increase hotel numbers very, very quickly, because we have those arrangements in place,” he said.
Shapps also confirmed that the government was engaging with other countries on developing a vaccine passport for international travel, akin to the card system used for yellow fever.
“I imagine there will be an international system where countries will want to know where you’ve been potentially vaccinated or potentially had tests before flying, before coming in,” he said.
Countries on the UK’s ‘red list’
Angola, Argentina, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Burundi, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Eswatini, French Guiana, Guyana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Rwanda, Seychelles, South Africa, Suriname, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, Venezuela, Zambia, Zimbabwe
The current nationwide lockdown rules in England
The main restriction is a firm stay-at-home message
People are only allowed to leave their home to go to work if they cannot reasonably do so from home, to shop for essential food, medicines and other necessities and to exercise with their household or one other person — once a day and locally
The most clinically vulnerable have been asked to shield
All colleges and primary and secondary schools are closed until a review at half-term in mid-February. Vulnerable children and children of critical workers are still able to attend while nursery provision is available
University students have to study from home until at least mid-February
Hospitality and non-essential retail are closed. Takeaway services are available but not for the sale of alcohol
Entertainment venues and animal attractions such as zoos are closed. Playgrounds are open
Places of worship are open but one may attend only with one’s household
Indoor and outdoor sports facilities, including courts, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and riding arenas, are closed. Elite sport, including the English Premier League, continues
Overseas travel is allowed for “essential” business only
Sebastian Payne and Philip Georgiadis in London