Calls for further easing of travel rules after abandonment of amber watchlist

Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport (PA) (PA Wire)
16:27pm, Tue 03 Aug 2021
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Boris Johnson faced fresh calls to ease international travel restrictions as the fallout continued from a decision to abandon plans for a new watchlist.

The idea of an “amber watchlist” for countries at risk of being moved into the red category has been ditched following ministerial infighting, Tory backbench opposition and criticism from the travel industry.

Whitehall sources have blamed Transport Secretary Grant Shapps for the fiasco, while Labour accused the Government of being responsible for “reckless U-turns and confusion”.

Meanwhile, it has emerged the head of the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), which advises on the travel rules, has quietly left her post without a successor being appointed.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has found himself at the centre of a Westminster briefing war (Tolga Akmen/PA) (PA Wire)

The amber watchlist plan was killed off on Monday but the bitter briefing wars around the policy continued in Westminster, with Mr Shapps the focus of attention.

“The Department for Transport came up with this policy, briefed it, briefed against it, then blamed the Prime Minister,” a Whitehall source told The Times.

An ally of Mr Shapps acknowledged it appeared someone in Government “has it in” for the Transport Secretary.

Ministers are expected to consider any changes to the traffic light system later this week.

Defending the Government’s approach, minister Gillian Keegan told Times Radio: “We have explored all options, looked at all options, but the most important thing is that the system is actually simple enough for people to understand.”

The skills minister acknowledged “there was a lot of discussion about these kind of different categories potentially being more complex and more difficult for people to navigate”.

Paul Charles, the boss of The PC Agency travel consultancy, said: “Overseas travel has to be simplified further – American citizens don’t have to put up with an opaque and inconsistent Government traffic lights system in order to go places – so why should UK citizens?”

Noel Josephides, chairman of travel firm Sunvil, told the BBC: “The Government is acting as if they have done us an enormous favour by not having an amber watchlist.

“The truth is this: unless the Government can give a guarantee that between now and the end of October countries that are either green or amber will mean that anyone visiting them will not be forced to self-isolate when they get back –  i.e. the public is given the confidence to travel – then any tinkering around the edges just does not work.”

Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon demanded the data behind the Government’s decisions on travel rules.

“Ministers need to get a grip and set out a proper strategy, provide full data and progress work with global partners on international vaccine passports so travellers and the industry can have the maximum clarity, instead of reckless​ U-turns and confusion,” he said.

The row over the abandoned watchlist came as it was confirmed Clare Gardiner had left her role as director general of the JBC.

Dr Gardiner, who was seconded to the role in June 2020, had previously been director of national resilience and strategy at the National Cyber Security Centre and has returned to “a role in national security”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “The JBC continues to operate routinely under robust interim arrangements.

“A formal open competitive recruitment process has concluded and the new DG will be announced imminently.”

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon said laws on the wearing of face masks would stay in place when many of Scotland’s other remaining coronavirus restrictions are lifted on Monday.

She said the requirement to wear masks will remain for “some time to come”.

From Monday, close contacts of those who test positive for Covid will no longer be required to automatically self-isolate for 10 days under the new Scottish system.

A double-vaccinated Scot who has at least two weeks since their last dose, will be able to take a PCR test that would allow them to abandon self-isolation if they test negative.

Similar changes will also be brought in for Wales on Monday, but England will have to wait another week – until August 16 – for self-isolation rules to ease.

The latest UK figures showed:

– Up to August 2, some 46,898,525 people have received a first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, a rise of 26,114 on the previous day, while 38,590,332 are double-jabbed, an increase of 126,307.

– A further 138 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday, the highest reported daily figure since March 17, bringing the UK total by that measure to 129,881.

– As of 9am on Tuesday, there had been a further 21,691 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK.

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