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COP26: Climate minister Alok Sharma has set a bad example for jetting to 30 countries - including several on red list, say Labour

·6-min read

Climate minister Alok Sharma's air travel to 30 countries in seven months is "bizarre" and sets a bad example ahead of COP26, a Labour minister has said.

Speaking to Kay Burley on Sky News, David Lammy said that reports COP26 President Mr Sharma flew tens of thousands of miles during the pandemic are "worrying" and demonstrate that "it is one rule for them and another rule for us".

The government's climate minister is under fire for flying to dozens of countries since the start of the pandemic.

Mr Sharma made 30 international trips in the latest seven months, including to six countries which are on the government's COVID-19 red list, the Daily Mail newspaper has reported.

It is believed many of the trips took place while international travel was all but banned in the UK and that Mr Sharma did not have to isolate after any of them as he was a "crown servant" on state business, an exemption that does, however, require a negative COVID test.

Speaking on Sky News, shadow justice secretary Mr Lammy questioned whether the amount of foreign travel Mr Sharma has undertaken was necessary.

"Well the optics are very clear - it is one rule for them and another rule for us. Whether it is Dominic Cummings, whether it is Matt Hancock, whether it is Alok Sharma," he said.

"And I've got to say, of course some international travel is required - but this amount of international travel when you are climate change minister feels to be bizarre and feels to not be setting the example.

"Particularly when there is quite widespread criticism of Britain's response to COP - just 100 days to go.

"So I think this is worrying. But it is more of the same from a government that really feels like the rules do not apply to them and their ministers and their class and groups of friends."

Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson Sarah Olney echoed this point, adding: "While Alok Sharma flies to red-list countries with abandon, hard-working families can hardly see loved ones or plan holidays as the government changes travel rules on the hoof."

First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford said the reports of Mr Sharma's travels "undermines the effort" that people have had to make.

"We've all got used to having meetings with people in different parts of the world without needing to travel around the world to do it," he told Sky News.

"And when we're trying to persuade people to make the changes they need to make, we need to make, in our daily lives, transport, in our own homes, in the way that we think about the contribution we can make, we need the people at the very top to be demonstrating that they are doing that too, not thinking that that is for other people to carry that burden."

And Green party peer Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb said the trips were "excessive".

"When you're in charge of COP26, to take this many flights is hypocritical," she said.

The revelations come as the UK prepares to cost the COP26 global environment summit this autumn - now less than 100 days away.

Ministers are hoping to use the event to get countries around the world to try to agree measures to slash carbon emissions and limit global warming.

Mr Sharma's thousands of air miles in the past year have been seen as hypocritical in this light, with the aviation industry responsible for 2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions, according to the air transport action group.

The climate minister's Instagram feed shows him travelling to various countries, including India in February and Bolivia and Brazil more recently - both of which are currently on the government's red list.

Other reported red list destinations have included Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and Turkey.

The government says Mr Sharma is tasked with securing commitments from key nations as he prepares to host the climate summit in Glasgow later this year which has required some international travel.

The prime minister's official spokesperson told reporters that "some travel is essential" to secure action ahead of the summit later this year, adding that Mr Sharma "has secured ambitious action" as a result of his visit to Japan - with the government committing to the net zero target.

But there has also been some backlash against the COP26 president's exemption from quarantine when travelling back from red list countries.

Under government guidelines, those travelling back from the 33 higher risk countries - including Bolivia and Brazil - face a mandatory 10-day stay in a quarantine hotel at a cost of £2,285 - upped from £1,750 in the latest government travel update.

But as a "crown servant", which encompasses ministers as well as diplomats and defence or border security officials, Mr Sharma does not have to isolate as part of an exemption written into the COVID travel rules.

The guidelines for returning from red list countries state: 'You need to quarantine in a government approved hotel if you have been in a country on the travel ban red list in the 10 days before you arrive in the UK unless a relevant department of the UK government has certified that you are not required to do so and are:

  • a crown servant or government contractor travelling to the UK for essential government work or returning from such work outside the UK

  • returning from conducting essential state business outside of the UK

  • returning to the UK where this is necessary to facilitate the functioning of a diplomatic mission or consular post of Her Majesty or of a military/other official posting on behalf of Her Majesty

It adds that the "relevant government department" will issue a letter certifying that someone falls into one of the above categories and is therefore exempt from hotel quarantine.

Those exempt are still expected to complete COVID tests on day two and day eight "where reasonably practicable", but do not need to complete the mandatory testing requirements if a relevant department of the UK government has certified that they are "a crown servant or government contractor travelling for essential government work" or "returning from conducting essential state business".

Government sources told Sky News: "Face to face diplomacy is vital to securing commitments from key countries at COP26.

"All UK government ministers who travel abroad are subject to the same rules on quarantine and to a COVID secure testing regime."

A government spokesperson added: "Helping the world tackle the climate emergency is an international priority for the government.

"Virtual meetings play a large part, however face-to-face meetings are key to success in the climate negotiations the UK is leading as hosts of COP26 and are crucial to understanding first-hand the opportunities and challenges other countries are facing in the fight against climate change."

Sky News has approached Mr Sharma's office for comment.

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