Conservative MPs have called on the Government to outline plans for when tough Covid-19 restrictions will be lifted.
In a Commons statement, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that passengers arriving in England from red-list countries will be charged £1,750 to stay in a quarantine hotel and face fines of up to £10,000 for failing to quarantine and those who lie on their passenger locator forms face up to 10 years in jail.
Mr Hancock said the measures announced will need to be replaced “over time with a system of safe and free international travel”.
💬 @uksciencechief has said “Covid-19 is going to be with us forever”. It will keep mutating. It won’t go away.
✈️ Will restrictions at our borders therefore need to be in place…forever?
— Mark Harper (@Mark_J_Harper) February 9, 2021
Conservative former minister Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said: “When is this policy going to end, if ever?
“Because if the virus continues to mutate, surely the risk is going to be there forever and so when can it be removed?”
Mr Hancock replied: “The risk of mutations absolutely can and will be managed through the evolution of vaccines in the way that the annual flu jab changes each year and allows us to protect ourselves.
“Of course these measures, whilst necessary now, are not measures that can be in place permanently. We need to replace them over time with a system of safe and free international travel. That’s where we need to get to.
“The first task is to vaccinate the population. If we get good news on the vaccination impact on hospitalisations and deaths from people who have new mutations, then we will be in a better place. If we do not get such good news, then we will need to use the updated vaccines to protect against the variants of concerns.
“The scientists inform and advise me that there are repeatedly independently around the world mutations of the same type in the E484K area of the virus, as mentioned by (Jonathan Ashworth). Now that gives the scientists a good start in where to target the new updated vaccine.”
Huw Merriman, Conservative chairman of the Transport Select Committee, questioned how long the new testing and quarantine measures will last, given the impact it could have on the summer travel industry.
Mr Hancock said: “We want to exit from this into a system of safe international travel as soon as practicable and as soon as is safe.”
He said that work is ongoing to assess the current vaccines against variants of the virus, adding: “If that isn’t forthcoming, then we will need to vaccinate with a further booster jab in the autumn, which we’re working with the vaccine industry.
“These are the uncertainties within which we are operating and hence, for now, my judgment is the package we’ve announced today is the right one.”
Conservative former minister Sir Edward Leigh questioned the timing of the new measures compared to the response of Australia and New Zealand, adding: “Let’s get a grip on this rather than just saying that it’s more important to keep the travel industry open rather than our schools.”
Mr Hancock replied: “Once we get cases down through both the measures now and then the vaccine here to keep them down, then a tough borders policy can help to keep us free domestically.”
Conservative MP William Wragg (Hazel Grove) asked whether the conditions for ending lockdown have changed, adding: “The original purpose of lockdown was to keep hospitals from falling over and to reduce hospitalisations.
“So if that is achieved through a vaccination programme, is it now the Government’s intention to use the level of the virus in circulation – the number of cases in the population – as the determination as when to ease lockdown?”
Mr Hancock replied: “No. The Prime Minister has set out the four conditions that need to be met and he’ll be saying more about this on February 22.”