Britons will need to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 “for evermore” in order to travel between countries, the transport secretary has predicted, suggesting that quarantine restrictions for some arrivals in England will remain in place into the autumn.
Grant Shapps said it was vital to “protect the domestic unlocking” after the latest changes were announced to the traffic light system that grades destinations according to their case, vaccine and variant numbers.
Fully vaccinated UK arrivals from France will not need to quarantineRead more
Shapps predicted people would be required to prove they had been fully vaccinated for some time to come, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is a reality that in this new world, we’re living with coronavirus … I think double vaccination or full vaccination is going to be a feature for evermore, and probably all countries will require full vaccination for you to enter.”
He said in an ideal world ministers would not have to impose quarantine restrictions or demand people pay money for multiple, expensive tests, but said the current system was likely to remain in place after summer.
That was because the threat of vaccine escape – meaning a variant emerging that current vaccines are less effective against – was the big worry on ministers’ minds, Shapps said.
“It would be irresponsible for us not, therefore, to be testing people when they do travel before they leave and when they get back – that’s how you can guard against the next big variant that none of us know about yet,” he said.
“So I think we’ll have to settle down into knowing that this will happen, but as the world opens up and international rules are adopted for travel, which will certainly include full vaccination, I think things will start to become more routine for people who travel.”
Shapps said quarantine restrictions did not block the importation of variants completely, but said slowing down their arrival was helpful.
In a boost for holidaymakers, France is being moved from the “amber plus” list to the normal amber list while a handful of countries are going on the green list, including Germany, Romania and Norway.
Travel hubs including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and India are also being bumped up and put on the regular amber list, while Georgia, Mexico, Réunion and Mayotte will be added to the red list, with all changes taking effect from 4am on Sunday 8 August.
Shapps defended having singled out France as the only amber list country where travellers still had to quarantine for up to 10 days regardless of whether they had been fully vaccinated, after the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, had suggested it was partly due to the number of cases of the Beta variant in Réunion, a French overseas territory thousands of miles away from mainland France.
He said there were “very close links” between Réunion and France, meaning high levels of the Beta variant on the island in the Indian Ocean had spilled over into the mainland’s north, but that these had since “descended”.
Some scientists called for clarity on the latest changes to travel restrictions.
Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said it was still far from clear what criteria the government was using to make these decisions. “This is especially problematic when some of them seem to defy logic and when the explanations that ministers give suggest some fundamental geographical and epidemiological misunderstandings.”
Prof Susan Michie, the director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London and a government adviser on behavioural science, also called for greater clarity from ministers. “The confusion and changes over travel guidance give mixed messages about the riskiness of the pandemic and of travel and undermine confidence in government strategy,” she said.
Another government adviser, Prof Stephen Reicher from the University of St Andrews, said the changes were risky. “My fear is that we are forgetting the lessons of last year,” he said, noting that last summer with schools off, universities off, people on holiday and socialising outdoors, infection levels were driven down to very low daily levels in early August.
International travel should be discouraged in general this year, but given some people need to travel for family and other reasons, it is key to ensure things are fair and equitable for those who must travel, he added.
However, Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said limiting international travel only served to delay the spread of an infectious disease when combined with rigid restrictions within the destination country. “Given the status of our own epidemic I can see very little benefits of not moving many European countries on to the green list,” he said.
Labour pressed the government to be more transparent about how it reached decisions about which list each country is put on.
Jim McMahon, the shadow transport secretary, said ministers should “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 clarity instead of reckless U-turns and confusion”.
Yasmin Qureshi, the Labour MP for Bolton, said it was “complete discrimination” that countries including Pakistan and Turkey remained on the red list.
She said the UAE and Qatar had been upgraded to the amber list because they were “very rich” and the same had happened to India because it was a large country the UK wanted to do deals with. She said Pakistan was “not a country that was going to achieve our rates of vaccination”, telling Sky News it did not make sense to block most travel with the south Asian country.