Covid: Boris Johnson defends travel rules amid confusion over amber list

Video report by ITV News UK Editor Paul Brand

Boris Johnson has come under pressure to clarify the confusion around international travel rules as he took Prime Minister’s Questions for the first time since Parliament reopened last week.

Facing Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in a six-question round for the first time since the local elections and the Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister was quizzed on where it is safe to holiday after one of his ministers said all international trips were “dangerous”.

Would-be holidaymakers were left with their plans for a summer break up in the air after ministers appeared to contradict themselves over where the public are permitted to travel abroad.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised Mr Johnson for the confusion around his government's travel plans saying they had "lost control of the messaging" and calling for "absolute clarity" on whether people should travel to amber list countries.

The Prime Minister defended travel rules saying the UK has "one of the strongest border regimes anywhere in the world".

He added: "It is very, very clear - you should not be going to an amber list country except for some extreme circumstance, such as the serious illness of a family member.

"You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday".

Sir Keir Starmer then asked the Prime Minister how many people were travelling to the UK from amber list countries saying, "150 flights a day are going to amber list countries and travel agents are reporting surges in holiday bookings to those countries."

Mr Johnson responded that there had been a 95% reduction in travel of any kind to and from this country.

He added: "The reason that we are able to move forward in the way that we have is because, as I have told the House repeatedly, we are continuing with the fastest vaccination rollout I think just about anywhere in Europe."

In final exchanges on the issue, the Labour leader called on the government to "a proper system that can protect against the threat of future variants".

Sir Keir Starmer said it was "ridiculous" that the Government decided to "weaken" border controls as the Indian variant is spreading.

Referencing comments made by Dominic Cummings, Starmer continued "The Prime Minister's former adviser had this one right. He said the Government's border policy was a joke."

Mr Johnson responded, saying the Labour leader should back up the government's messaging "using what authority he possesses to convey the message to the rest of the country".

The exchanges come after confusion over the government's policy on international travel with a government ministers offering contradictory readings of the rules.

Environment Secretary George Eustice told broadcasters people could go to amber-listed countries as long as they observed quarantine rules on their return.

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Welsh Secretary Simon Hart told Times Radio the public should ask themselves whether a trip to a country on the amber list was “essential” before conceding that “some people might think a holiday is essential”.

And despite the presence of a green list comprising 12 countries and territories, health minister Lord Bethell told peers he considered all foreign travel to be “dangerous” and urged Britons to holiday at home this summer.

'We're now entering the era of more personal responsibility,' says Gillian Keegan, minister for apprenticeships and skills

Gillian Keegan, minister for apprenticeships and skills, told ITV Good Morning Britain on Wednesday the UK is "now entering the era of more personal responsibility, relying on the common sense of the great British people".

She explained the implementation of the travel traffic light system: "We have moved to that personal responsibility, people have to make sensible judgements. We can offer the guidance.

"The reason why we have the amber countries is we look at things like the vaccination rate, the case rate, the variants, we look at all of those and basically give a judgement as to whether they are an amber list country or a green list country."

What England's travel traffic light system means, according to Gillian Keegan

Clarifying the traffic light system and what it means, she said: "This isn't actually a matter of legislation, by the way, this is government guidance. The 12 green list countries are the countries that you can book for foreign holidays.

"The amber list is restricted travel for business, for specific occasions like funerals or if there are some serious incidents within your families - so there are restrictions and some exceptions for those.

"And obviously the red list countries, you are not to try and come here. the only people who can come here from red list countries are British citizens returning home."

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “These comments are simply not correct and will cause real anger amongst the hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on international travel, and confusion amongst families who have booked travel under the Government’s own restart policy, now less than 48 hours old.

Quarantine-free travel is permitted to countries on the Government’s green list Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

“People should not travel to red countries we know that, but to generalise against perfectly legal travel even to green countries is deeply unhelpful.”

The criticism came amid reports thousands of people had headed for destinations such as France, Greece, Spain and the United States – none of which are on the approved list – with more than 150 flights reported to have departed on Monday when travel rules were relaxed as part of a further phase of lockdown easing.

  • Watch the full exchanges from PMQs

It comes after ministers refused to rule out bringing back local tiered restrictions in a bid to control the highly transmissible Indian variant – although the Prime Minister said there was no “conclusive” evidence to deviate from the road map out of lockdown following rising case numbers of the South Asian mutation in some parts of the country.

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North of the border, Nicola Sturgeon was re-elected as the First Minister of Scotland by a majority of MSPs at Holyrood on Tuesday, having vowed that recovery from the coronavirus pandemic was her “driving priority”.

The SNP leader said, although there was a “clear mandate” for another Scottish independence referendum following this month’s election results, she would look to make progress on a new border poll “only when the crisis of Covid has passed”.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s leaders are due to decide this week whether the next stage of easing can go ahead as planned on Monday.

The country reached the milestone of having given more than one million people at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday.