Reopening more international travel routes from the UK will be “challenging” because the country must do everything it can to protect itself from new coronavirus variants, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.
Britain last week tightened restrictions on overseas travel, removing Portugal from its so-called green list in a major blow to the airline industry. Restoring travel in the medium-term is an “incredibly important goal,” Hancock told parliament, but he added: “It’s going to be hard.”
The “biggest challenge and the reason this is so difficult is that a variant that undermines the vaccine effort obviously would undermine the return to domestic freedom — and that has to be protected at all costs,” Hancock said. Ministers will be studying data on infection rates and hospitalisations in the days ahead as they weigh up whether to ease England’s remaining Covid-19 restrictions as planned on June 21. The relaxation has been thrown into doubt by the rise of the highly transmissible delta variant first identified in India.
No decisions have yet been made on moving ahead with the final step out of lockdown, Hancock said. An announcement will be made on June 14. Britain is “in a race” between the vaccine program and the virus — and the delta variant has given the virus “extra legs,” he added.
Easing the rules would allow nightclubs to reopen, sports stadiums to fill to capacity, and large weddings and conferences to resume. Delaying the move risks a showdown between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party colleagues who are impatient for an end to social distancing.
Hancock said the ultimate goal was to “live with Covid,” but it was important that people had both shots of the vaccine to ensure maximum protection. Some 77% of UK adults have had one dose so far, and 53% have had two. Unlike previous variants, the “second jab appears to be even more important this time round,” he said.
Hancock has not ruled out delaying the reopening for a few weeks so more people can get their second shot. Vaccinations was expected to be opened to people in England aged between 25 and 29.
Alongside its deliberations on easing restrictions this month, the government is undertaking a number of reviews including on whether to introduce proof of vaccination or testing in UK venues.