The UK government has been urged to extend restrictions on overseas holidays to reduce the risk of new Covid variants fuelling a third wave.

In a report published today, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus called on ministers to maintain curbs on non-essential leisure travel beyond May 17 and introduce stronger protections against Covid-19 at the UK’s borders.

It says this policy should be reviewed on a quarterly basis and that the government must provide “adequate financial support” to businesses in the travel industry in the meantime.

The government has said quarantine restrictions will be in place for high risk countries and testing before leaving and returning even for low-risk “green” countries.

Nicola Sturgeon has said foreign travel remains “a significant risk” and suggested that mistakes had been made last summer in allowing international travel.

Layla Moran MP, chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said it was "staggering" that the government was contemplating encouraging overseas holidays when she said airports were already struggling to keep the virus and new variants at bay.

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The report is based on evidence received at a hearing last month where experts warned that airports are becoming a “breeding ground” for the virus, with people arriving from red, amber and green list countries often mixing in overcrowded arrival halls.

None of the witnesses questioned in the hearing said they would be prepared to travel internationally in the near future.

Edinburgh-based public health expert, Professor Linda Bauld has said she will be staying in Scotland for her Summer break this year, rather than taking a much-longer-for trip to see her relatives in Canada. 

Lucy Moreton of the Immigration Services Union warned that long queues at airports posed a “significant risk” to border staff and travellers, while Professor Deenan Pillay from University College London said a failure to separate arrivals from amber and red countries “made a nonsense of things.”

Ms Moreton also told MPs that border staff spot around 100 fake Covid test certificates a day, mostly if there is a spelling error, and that the current system is predominantly based on trust.

MPs also heard from public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally, who warned the number of cases of imported Covid mutations such as the Indian variant could be ten to twenty times higher than official data suggests.

HeraldScotland:

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He stated that only 5% to 10% of PCR tests are sent to laboratories to check for variants and that this analysis can take several weeks, meaning the government’s current approach is equivalent to “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”.

The latest figures from Public Health England this week showed the number of cases of the Indian variant have trebled to over 400 in the past week, with the vast majority of cases linked to international travel.

The report also sets out recommendations to reduce the risk of infection at airports and ensure passengers arriving from green, amber and red list countries are kept separate.

These include improving ventilation and creating more space for social distancing at arrival halls and verifying travel documents pre-departure where possible to reduce airport queues.

The cross-party group is also calling on the UK to drive the development of international standards for Covid test and vaccination certificates to help border staff spot fake documents.

Finally, the cross-party group is urging the UK government to maintain funding for international research assisting the global fight against Covid-19.

It comes after evidence received by the APPG found cuts to the UK's aid funding have impacted on several vital projects including work to help track Covid variants in India and Bangladesh.

The APPG on Coronavirus is carrying out an ongoing cross-party inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and first called for Covid screening and quarantine measures at UK borders in August last year.

Dr Philippa Whitford MP, vice chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said: “Our cross-party inquiry has heard how the UK’s border management is acting more like a sieve than a shield in the fight against coronavirus.

“Ministers must act on these recommendations and learn from the mistakes made last year, when the premature reopening of international travel contributed to a second wave.

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"With the threat of importing dangerous new Covid variants, we must not throw away recent hard-won progress made through the sacrifices and efforts of the public.”

Layla Moran MP, chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, added: “It is staggering that the government is even contemplating encouraging overseas holidays when airports are already struggling to keep the virus and new variants at bay.

“Urgent measures are needed to better detect fake Covid test certificates, reduce overcrowding in arrival halls and separate out those arriving from red and amber list countries. The country’s biosecurity cannot rely on border staff spotting a spelling error.”

Caroline Lucas MP, vice chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said:  “Ministers are showing a shocking level of complacency about the risks posed by overseas travel.

"We know from past experience that tourism hotspots risk becoming Covid hotspots, with people mixing from all over the world.  

“Instead of giving the green light to overseas holidays, we should be providing ongoing support to the travel industry and reversing aid cuts that are undermining the global fight against Covid-19.”