Robert Courts, the aviation and maritime minister, has defended the government’s recently announced framework for the resumption of international travel, and batted away suggestions the policy and its roll-out have been deliberately convoluted to stop people from travelling.
Courts appeared before the government’s travel committee on Wednesday (14 April) to field MPs questions on the findings of the Global Travel Taskforce, which on Friday (9 April) issued its report setting out a pathway to a resumption of international travel.
Chair of the committee, Huw Merriman MP, asked Courts whether the lack of clarity and detail in the taskforce’s report on several key issues, notably how countries will be categorised according to a new traffic light system, was a deliberate ploy to restrict traveller numbers.
"We are trying to protect public health, but seeking to unlock travel," said Courts. "I want to see people flying and on ships again. This incredible travel sector has always been a world leader, and I want it to be again.
"But it [the restart] must be robust and sustainable. We don’t want to go backwards – it is a twin balancing act. This lays out the framework in terms of the traffic light system, but there are a number of other things we are working on... such as the countries in each [traffic light] channel. We have also acknowledged there is work to do to bring down the cost of travel."
Merriman asked Courts why the government came out with a traffic light system now without being able to commit to categorising countries until early May, which could be little more than a week before a limited resumption of travel on 17 May – the government’s "at the very earliest" date for the restart.
Courts said he acknowledged there was a tension between giving certainty and being accurate. "At the moment, we’ve said no international travel until 17 May," he said, stressing the decisions on how to categorise countries must be made on the data that exists at the time. "We are still some distance from that date," he added.
Pressed on when countries would be categorised, Courts reiterated the government’s early-May ambition for this, to which Merriman said this would undoubtedly cause logistical issues for travel providers.
"I am conscious for airlines, cruise and rail, they will need to bring people back, there is an element of planning involved," said Courts. "Clearly, we’d like to give as much notice as we can, but that still has to be within the confines of protecting public health and making sure decisions are accurate at the time – or [risk having to] revisit them."
Merriman said it all seemed to be a "rather clever way" of making sure people are not flying or travelling by cruise on 17 May. "It is not an unreasonable suggestion to say it is the government’s plan to stop people from being able to travel," he told Courts.
Courts replied: "I wouldn’t agree at all. We want people to be able to travel. I accept this is a cautious unlocking of international travel. It is meant to be robust, sustainable, and protect public health and ensure we don’t have to go backwards again. It intends to enable people to travel, but to do so in a way that is safe, secure and irreversible."