Henry Smith MP (Crawley) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for the aviation, tourism and travel industries in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair for this important debate, Dr Huq, as we seek to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, and I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister in his place. I will be interested to hear his comments.
Aviation, travel and tourism were among the first sectors to face the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which were almost immediate, and unfortunately, owing to the nature of those industries and the restrictions still in place, they will be among the slowest to recover fully. In normal times before the pandemic, more than 1.5 million people were employed in those sectors. Sadly, many of them have lost their job over the past 15 months or so. About 50% of people in the sector are still on furlough, which finishes at the end of September, and I fear that if travel, aviation and tourism cannot pick up meaningfully over the summer months, many of them will also unfortunately lose their job.
This is devastating for aviation communities such as mine in the Gatwick area. An assessment of unemployment from February 2020 to February 2021 showed an increase of 115% across the nation, but for the top 20 aviation communities the increase was 147%. I do not think we have yet seen the worst of the situation.
Do not mistake this for some parochial plea for support for these sectors because aviation and international connectivity are essential for the UK economy. In normal times, outbound travel accounts for a contribution of about £37 billion to our economy, and inbound travel accounts for £28 billion. That travel has not been able to operate meaningfully for a year and a half, and the impact has been significant. If we were able to operate in a more meaningful way this summer, it would make a contribution to the UK economy of an estimated £19 billion—quite significant.
The title of the debate refers to support for the travel and aviation sectors. The best way to support them is to allow them to meaningfully and safely operate. If that cannot happen, I am afraid the bill for unemployment benefits this coming autumn and winter will be a significant burden to the taxpayer. Many companies and employers in the sector will be coming to the Government asking for bailouts. Far better that we let the industry recover and make money for the UK Exchequer, whose bills are already significant, than cost it some more.
I pay tribute to the Government for the world-leading vaccination programme over the past six months. We were told just before Christmas that if we had a successful vaccination programme, that would allow us our liberty and enable us to get back to much more normal life. Yesterday, we hit the target of 60%-plus of people across the country who have been doubly jabbed with Covid-19 vaccines. I fear that we are squandering the vaccine dividend that we were told would allow us far greater freedoms once again.
We are, quite simply, at a competitive disadvantage. Many countries in the EU and the world are allowing a far greater number of countries to be travelled to, particularly for those who have received full Covid-19 vaccinations. This is not just about two weeks on the beach in a sunny environment, nice though that is. It is about global Britain and us being a trading nation. For every day that there is not meaning transatlantic travel between the UK and the US, an estimated £32 billion is lost to the British economy.
I welcome and support the Government’s traffic light system for international travel. It is absolutely right that for parts of the world where cases of Covid-19 are still unfortunately far too high, we must protect ourselves against that and new variants. I support those quarantine arrangements, but for countries that have had a similar vaccination roll-out success and similar or lower infection rates than the UK, we need to have a much more pragmatic regime for amber and green list countries.
I welcome the fact that the Government are reportedly looking at requiring those who are fully vaccinated and travelling from amber countries only to test, rather than to quarantine at home. That would be very positive, but I think we need to go further. We need to expand the green list of countries—I welcome reports that it will be announced later today that Malta and the Balearic Islands will be added to that list—but the list needs to be far wider than that.
The cost and complexity of Covid-19 testing for international passengers is a major disincentive for people to travel. For a family of four, it really becomes prohibitive. It is ridiculous that many tests are more expensive than the flight itself. Perhaps more rapid antigen testing for lower risk countries would be appropriate, particularly if we are also dealing with people who are fully vaccinated. If there is a positive test, they can have a PCR test to back that up. It is interesting that, of those who have been tested who have been able to travel, less than 1% have proved positive in that test.
This is about people’s jobs and livelihoods. It is not just about going on holiday. Airports are likely to lose a further £2.6 billion if we do not see meaningful opening up. We are losing about £60 million in exports throughout this period because we do not have people able to visit this country and spend their money here.
Finally—I want to make sure that as many colleagues as possible can take part today and I am grateful to hon. and right hon. Members from all parts of the country and across the House for contributing to this important debate today— I want to comment on where respect for the restrictions is beginning to seriously break down. We hear that Wembley will be three quarters full for the Euros final, because an exception will be made for VIP guests from UEFA to come to London. I do not mind Wembley being near capacity. I welcome that easing of restrictions, but what is not right is to have one rule for VIPs and another for everybody else. When parents cannot go to school sports days, VIPs should not be able to come to Wembley.
The answer is to open up in a realistic and pragmatic way, to save jobs and recover our economy from the devastating effects of Covid-19. The best way to support the travel, aviation and tourism sectors is to allow them to operate, save those jobs and make money for our economy, rather than them being yet another burden on every taxpayer for years to come.
Henry Smith MP
I thank the right hon. Members for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter), and the hon. Members for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart), for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) and for Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—he has had to fly back to Scotland and cannot be present.
I also thank my hon. Friend the aviation Minister. I know he understands the importance of getting the sector back up and running. Even though he cannot say so, I know he shares many of our frustrations. The message I want to leave is that we cannot operate as an economy, be it international travel or anything else, on a zero-Covid strategy. The coronavirus will probably be with us for the rest of our lives. We will probably have to have a rolling vaccination programme for the foreseeable future. We will have to learn to live with it. We cannot afford for it to dominate our lives for much longer. Otherwise, the impact that it will have on employment and general prosperity—mental health has been mentioned as well—will be severe. There is a special case for the sector to have furlough extended beyond September, because of the fact that, unlike most other parts of the economy, it seems, sadly, that it will not be able to open in a meaningful way.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their eloquence and erudite comments, many of which, if not all of them, I very much agree with.