Britain is “shut for business” because of travel restrictions that are “incomprehensible” in one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, Theresa May has warned.
In a forthright attack on the Government’s Covid policy, the former prime minister said that if ministers blocked travel every time there was a new variant, “we will never be able to travel abroad ever again”.
She said Britain was “falling behind” the EU in reopening travel, despite being way ahead on vaccinations, and called on Boris Johnson to be “up front” with the British people about the fact that Covid deaths would continue, in the same way that 10,000 to 20,000 people die from flu each year.
Mrs May’s comments, timed to coincide with the beginning of the G7 meeting of world leaders in Cornwall, came as the aviation sector called for “immediate” action to reopen the skies, saying the industry had now reached a “critical point”.
Airlines UK has warned that carriers will not be able to recover if they continue to accrue yet more debt, and Mrs May said the Government had to decide whether it wanted a UK aviation sector in the future “because at the rate it’s going, it won’t have one”.
On Thursday, Mr Johnson and Joe Biden, the US president, agreed to launch a taskforce to explore ways of opening a trans-Atlantic air corridor, but industry leaders said the plans lacked “clarity” and had no time-frame.
Mr Johnson will announce on Monday whether Covid restrictions will be lifted domestically on June 21, but the rules for international travel are decided separately.
Mrs May has chosen her interventions sparingly since she left Downing Street in 2019, but held nothing back as she criticised the “chaotic” traffic light system for travel.
During a Parliamentary debate on the aviation sector, she said Britain had gone backwards, not forwards, in its travel policy despite the success of the vaccine programme.
She said that a year ago ministers promised they were “working hard” to get internationally agreed health standard measures in place but: “One year on we are no further forward, indeed what we have is a devastated industry, jobs lost and global Britain shut for business. More than not being any further forward, we’ve gone backwards.
“We now have over 50 per cent of the adult population vaccinated – a wonderful programme – yet we’re more restricted on travel than we were last year.
“In 2020, I went to Switzerland in August, South Korea in September, there was no vaccine and travel was possible – this year there is a vaccine, travel is not possible. I really don’t understand the stance the Government is taking.”
She said Portugal, which was briefly on the “green list” of countries that do not require quarantine, was now on the amber list, meaning it was “permissible” to go there and quarantine on returning home, “but government ministers tell people that they mustn’t travel – the messaging is mixed and the system chaotic”.
She said the Government “needs to decide whether it wants an airline industry and aviation sector” in the UK, adding: “It is incomprehensible that one of the most heavily vaccinated countries in the world is one that is most reluctant to give its citizens the freedoms those vaccinations should support.”
Ministers have expressed concerns about the rise in cases of the so-called Indian variant of Covid, but Mrs May said: “There will be new variants every year. If the Government’s position is that we cannot open up travel until there are no new variants elsewhere in the world then we will never be able to travel abroad ever again.”
Ahead of Mr Johnson’s announcement about June 21, Mrs May said it was time for the Government to admit some home truths about Covid.
She said: “I think there are some facts the Government needs to be up front with the British people about and ministers need to think a bit more about when making these decisions.
“We will not eradicate Covid-19 from the UK. There will not be a time when we can say that there will never be another case of Covid-19 in this country … sadly people will die from Covid here in the UK in the future, as 10,000 to 20,000 people do every year from flu.”
Public Health England estimates that the vaccination programme has saved 11,800 deaths in individuals aged 80 years and older, 1,800 in individuals aged 70 to 79, and 400 in individuals aged 60 to 69 years.
Estimates also indicate that the vaccination programme has prevented more than 80,000 hospitalisations, including 42,000 admissions in those aged 65 years and over in England, approximately 5,400 admissions in those aged 65 to 74, 16,300 in those aged 75 to 84.
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