Boris Johnson faces mounting pressure from senior Tories to resist attempts to extend the blanket ban on overseas travel or delay the loosening of UK restrictions, amid new warnings over rising Covid cases in Europe.
With scientific advisers warning of the risks of overseas holidays in the late spring and summer, figures from across the Conservative party demanded that the prime minister reject an “excess of caution” in reacting to an apparent third Covid wave across the continent.
It comes with cases rising in countries including France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Turkey. Italy has recorded a near-doubling in the past month, while Paris has entered a new month-long lockdown to curb the spread. The government’s roadmap says that overseas travel from England could resume from 17 May at the earliest, should a series of conditions be satisfied.
It is understood that ministers and the industry are looking at a traffic light system that would allow for foreign travel this summer. It would see easier access to “green” counties with low levels of virus and variants, with more stringent conditions applied to “red” countries.
With tensions building in the party, a series of Tories said on Saturday that Britain’s successful vaccine programme should allow the government to deploy testing and stricter rules for high-risk countries, rather than prolonging a blanket travel ban. Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said: “The success of the British vaccination programme should allow international travel to resume safely. It is very likely that Covid is now an endemic virus – there may be variants for years to come. We need to focus on rational mitigation and not keep resorting to disastrous lockdowns.”
Huw Merriman, Tory chair of the transport select committee, said: “Given the success of the UK’s vaccine rollout, it’s essential we hold firm to our dates and give a dividend in the form of international summer travel. This will give everyone a lift and help preserve jobs in the travel industry.”
David Davis, the former cabinet minister, backed an “intelligent block on countries that have got third waves” rather than extending a blanket ban on overseas travel. “You use vaccination passports, plus testing, plus quarantine, plus absolute blocks on high-risk countries. That’s the suite of things we should use.”
Desmond Swayne, a former minister and lockdown critic, said: “The whole point of having a successful vaccine campaign is that we want to take advantage of it. We mustn’t forget the huge economic costs involved with continuing with lockdown a day longer. I do feel that we’ve got an excess of caution and not enough sense of urgency about the damage.”
Adam Afriyie, of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs, said: “It is hard to fathom why, just at the point that the vaccine is starting to work in preventing serious illness and death, we are suddenly moving the goalposts and prolonging these endless cycles of lockdowns and restrictions, with all the harm to people’s welfare, health and livelihoods we know they are causing.”
Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee, said: “People are exhausted, they’re tired. They’re still frightened. The last thing we want to do is just ramp up that anxiety. We should be de-escalating it. The scientists have just got to let the government now do the messaging.”
They spoke out after a scientist advising the government warned that the prospect of foreign holidays this summer was looking “extremely unlikely”. Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the government’s Spi-M modelling group, said there was a danger from new variants more resistant to the current vaccines, such as the South Africa variant.
Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “Hopefully, new vaccines that may be available late this year may offer more protection against a wider range of Covid-19-causing strains. But until the arrival of these vaccines, travel – along with high numbers of cases within a country – offers a potential route to further increases in hospital numbers. Ideally, border checks and a functioning contact tracing system should be sufficient to enable more travel, but without this, testing and quarantine seem the most likely to succeed.”
It comes after a record week for vaccination rates, with more than half of all adults in the UK now vaccinated with a first dose. More than 700,000 vaccinations were recorded on Saturday. The government said a further 96 people had died after testing positive for Covid, bringing the UK total to 126,122. The number of positive cases rose by 5,587.
However, the UK’s lockdown plans are also coming under pressure from continued threats from the EU to ban exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the bloc unless it speeds up its delivery schedule. European commission president Ursula von der Leyen said: “We have the possibility to ban planned exports. This is a message to AstraZeneca: You fulfil your part of the deal toward Europe before you start to deliver to other countries.”
Government insiders insisted the timetable for the loosening of lockdown was on track. “We’ve now vaccinated over half the adult population and will meet our target of vaccinating the priority groups by mid-April,” a government source said. “As the PM has made clear, our roadmap plans are unchanged and we are on track to returning to normality as long as the data continues to go in the right direction and we meet our four tests.”
Opposition parties are urging caution on the government’s route out of lockdown. Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow home secretary, called for a more “comprehensive hotel quarantine system without further delay”. He added: “Of course, we all want international travel to resume but safety has to come first. It is too early to say if there can be any changes to travel advice on 17 May, as numbers in many European countries are increasing so sharply.” The Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, said: “It is absolutely crucial we do not re-open international travel until it is absolutely safe. Ultimately, this issue shows that we cannot simply control the virus here in the UK, we need to work across Europe and the world to control it everywhere.”