The chair of the home affairs select committee, Labour MP Yvette Cooper, has warned the government risks overpromising on the potential for summer holidays to go ahead this year.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday (1 March), Cooper said new Covid variants would pose a significant risk to the UK’s cautious efforts to reopen its economy and society.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of the country’s Covid lockdown could see domestic travel resume from mid-April, and international travel from 17 May – subject to an in-depth review by a newly reconvened Global Travel Taskforce.
Labour MP Cooper reiterated comments made by home secretary Priti Patel last week when she appeared before the committee, chaired by Cooper, and said it was "too soon" for people to be booking holidays.
Her comments also echoed some of the caution urged by other ministers in recent weeks, who have come in for heavy criticism from the travel sector for downplaying booking rather than the physical act of travelling for leisure, which is currently illegal.
Cooper’s appearance came after Public Health England (PHE) on Sunday (28 February) confirmed six cases of the Brazil variant of Covid had been detected in the UK, three in England and three in Scotland.
Two of the cases in England related to one household in South Gloucestershire with a history of travel to Brazil, said PHE, while the third is currently unlinked.
PHE, along with NHS Test and Trace, is following up with all passengers on Swiss Air flight LX318 travelling from Sao Paolo to Heathrow via Zurich, which landed on 10 February – before England’s hotel quarantine regime came into effect on 15 February.
The cases detected in England and Scotland are not being linked.
"We need to look at how these cases arrived in the first place in order to prevent others from doing so," said Cooper. "I think [they] identify some of the gaps and weaknesses in the current system."
Cooper said indirect flights were a particular problem as pre-flight tests, which can be taken up to three days prior to departure, "leave a significant proportion of cases being undetected".
She added the government should look at "safe transport" home from airports, pointing towards such a regime in South Korea, or a more robust hotel quarantine system, comparable with those in operation in Australia and New Zealand.
"It shows the problem with people travelling home from the airport, across the UK, on public transport," said Cooper. "That’s a lot of contact with people before they self-isolate, without having been tested at the airport when they first arrive."
Robinson pressed further, asking: "Do you say to be sure variants like this aren’t coming into the country, we are going to have to ban flights right across the holiday season, forget those summer holidays, forget resuming normal international business flights – for months?"
Cooper responded by saying that by setting dates for a potential resumption of international leisure travel, the government risked "raising expectations about summer holidays they may not be able to meet".
"As our own cases fall, and as the economy and society opens up, they [scientists] argue that’s actually when you need stronger measures at the border rather than reducing them," said Cooper.
"The trouble is at the moment is the government is encouraging people to think those summer holidays are all going to be possible and international travel is going to return."
Robinson asked therefore if her advice was not to book. "I think, yes," said Cooper. "The home secretary when we pressed her on this said it was ’too soon for people to be booking holidays’."