Boris Johnson faces Tory backbench backlash over ‘amber watchlist’ travel plans

·4-min read
British Airways  - Andy Rain/Shutterstock
British Airways - Andy Rain/Shutterstock

Boris Johnson has been warned he faces a Tory backbench backlash if the Government goes ahead with the introduction of “amber watchlists” for holidaymakers travelling to France, Spain or Italy.

The MPs and travel industry leaders who have been fighting a long rearguard action against the Government’s border policy believe it is an unnecessary complication designed solely to frighten Britons off foreign travel because ministers cannot afford to put the countries on the red list.

“Amber watchlists,” - like “green watchlists” - would mean the country was at serious risk of turning “red” at any point with minimal warning, Anyone deciding to go would be taking a big gamble that they could end up in hotel quarantine on their return to the UK.

Critics believe it is a classic fudge because the consequences of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of holidaymakers being forced into hotel quarantine, at a cost of £1,750, if any major European country was placed on the red list are hard to imagine.

Not only would the Government find it difficult to come up with sufficient hotel rooms but it would have a severe impact on the economy.

It would almost certainly disrupt trade links even if lorry drivers and vital supply routes for food and medicines were exempted, while tens of thousands of workers would have to self-isolate away from their businesses and employers for 10 days.

Equally, it would be impossible to police.

As Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, noted: “It is very hard to stop people moving between France, Spain and Portugal. You can’t put one country on a red list because of the nature of the mainland.

“The Government has created a policy which is impossible to implement. They would cause major economic damage because so many people would be taken out of the workforce.”

Yet, the ostensible compromise solution of a watchlist - or “amber plus” as with France, where travellers returning from it have to quarantine at home for up to 10 days - carries no sway with Tory backbenchers, who are concerned about the impact on the economy generally, and the travel industry in particular.

As one senior figure in the party noted: “I think the amber watchlist will annoy the backbenchers. We have to stop this situation where people travel legitimately and then get caught out and rush back.

“Either we have had a successful vaccination programme or we have not and, given its success, we should be reaping the economic dividend that it offers. We have to stop using gimmicks and enable vaccinated people to travel wherever they want.”

Henry Smith, Tory chairman of the All-Party Future of Aviation group, agreed, adding: “The original traffic light system was easy to understand. There is a clear set of criteria. If you add levels of complexity, you increase confusion and therefore discourage travel. It isn’t helpful in terms of passenger confidence.”

The MPs are heartened by the intervention of Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, who is calling for the urgent easing of travel restrictions and hope it presages not just an expansion of the green list countries but a more pragmatic approach to risk in foreign travel.

They believe he has been a virtually lone voice in Government in recent months in supporting Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, against the health “hawks” of Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary, and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, whose hardline has been reinforced by the public health lobby.

“Rishi has been saying this for months,” said one insider. “But now it feels like the dynamic has really changed with Matt [Hancock]’s departure and Sajid Javid’s appointment. As a former chancellor, he is much more focused on the economy.

“I suspect Rishi has found himself no longer a lone voice and is now comfortable with speaking out that it is time to say to the public health lobby, ‘Back off and no further.’ He is trying to get active change.”

MPs and the travel industry favour the US model, where the fully jabbed can travel to whichever country will accept them, and with only a pre-departure test before returning - and voluntary test once back in the US.

The main concern for the UK Government has been the risk from variants being imported to the UK but a growing body of scientific research suggests that not only is the vaccine effective against even the beta, or South African variant, but that it is suppressing the virus and in particular hospitalisations.

This week will be a critical litmus test for the Government. Will it opt for “amber watchlists” and “limited greens” - or embrace Rishi Sunak’s formula of easing restrictions and compete with the EU which has opened its borders to the fully vaccinated?

The industry’s view is clear. “The UK is tying itself in knots with these inexplicably complicated travel rules. The EU must be looking at us in incredulity,” said Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents all the major airlines.

“Green is the only way forward - this is the last chance saloon now for the industry and saving the summer.”

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