Boris Johnson has ditched plans for tougher quarantine restrictions for some holidaymakers after days of chaos, as it emerged the chief of the Joint Biosecurity Centre that advises on travel rules has left the job, leaving the centre “rudderless”.
After a cabinet revolt and a backlash from the travel industry, government sources said the prime minister would not be going ahead with proposals for a new amber watchlist to warn travellers which countries were at risk of turning red.
Cabinet sources said the plans were killed off by the Treasury and Department for Transport, as ministers grew in confidence about the drop in daily cases, which fell to 21,052 on Monday.
After weeks of confusion over travel guidelines, Labour and the Lib Dems called on Johnson to get a grip on advice for holidaymakers. The Department of Health and Social Care has refused to say who is in charge of the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which is responsible for advising the government on the risk of travel as well as setting the UK’s overall Covid threat level.
It is understood that Clare Gardiner, a former spy who ran the JBC, has left the job of director-general without a permanent successor having being appointed to the organisation, set up under Johnson. Her details were removed from its website in mid-June.
The Department of Health and Social Care said on Tuesday: “The Joint Biosecurity Centre is part of the UK Health Security Agency and is led professionally by the chief executive. The former director general has returned as planned to a role in national security. The JBC continues to operate routinely under robust interim arrangements. A formal open competitive recruitment process has concluded and the new DG will be announced imminently.”
Labour said leaving the crucial organisation with a vacancy at the top was “reckless”, while the Lib Dems called for the government to “step in and appoint a head to the currently rudderless Joint Biosecurity Centre”.
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Johnson had been due this week to decide, based on advice from the JBC, whether to create the new warning category to tell holidaymakers if they were at imminent risk of going on the red list – which requires 10 days of expensive hotel quarantine.
He backed away from the idea on Monday, with senior cabinet sources saying the plan had been killed off by Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, for fear it would leave holidaymakers in limbo. Another government source said the prime minister had never been in favour, but it had been put forward within Whitehall at a “Covid O” meeting last week over fears that a new variant could be carried back with travellers from Spain, Italy or Greece over the summer.
“The watchlist could have warned people that the country they were going to [might] turn red and given them the full information, but the backlash is so big that we have lost that position. There’s not a chance it will go ahead now,” one Whitehall source said. He suggested travellers would be worse off without a public watchlist because they would get no warning of the country they were in, or due to travel to, being put on the red list.
The furore follows weeks of confusion over guidance for holidaymakers, with countries moving between the red, amber and green tiers of the traffic-light system with little notice.
Fears that popular destinations such as Spain, Greece and Italy could have been put into the new amber watchlist category prompted alarm among Tories that millions of tourists planning trips to those countries would be in limbo over whether they were soon to be subject to red list rules. Anyone entering the UK from a red-listed country must spend a period in hotel quarantine, at a cost of £1,750.
Ministers are still due to take a decision on whether countries should move between traffic-light categories at a meeting later this week, but the option of an amber watchlist has been removed from the table.
Spain had been considered most at risk of being added to the amber-plus list because of the growth of Beta variant cases, an issue ministers began considering seriously last week.
Prevalence of the variant in Spain has risen by 3.5% over the past month, according to the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data, and in mid-July it had one of the highest rates of any country in the world for sequenced cases found to be Beta.
However, like many other places that saw an influx of Alpha and Beta cases over the spring and early summer, these have begun to dissipate, being dwarfed by the Delta variant as it seeps further across Europe and the US.
France, put on the amber-plus list several weeks ago, has also recorded a reduction in Beta cases. The country’s ambassador to the UK, Catherine Colonna, said it “keeps declining” and now accounts for just 0.8% of infections.
Despite worries in Whitehall about the potential for new variants of concern entering the UK, Johnson hinted on Monday that the system needed to be simplified. Speaking on a visit to Airbus, he said: “On travel, we have had to balance it because of the anxiety that I think a lot of people have – I have – about importing new variants, bringing back the disease.
“We also have to recognise that people want, badly, to go on their summer holidays, we need to get the travel industry moving again, we need to get our city centres open again and so we want an approach that is as simple as we can possibly make it.”
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Just hours earlier, the government had defended the proposals for an amber watchlist, with Matt Warman, the minister for digital infrastructure, saying it would provide people with more information so they could make “informed decisions”.
Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair, told Sky it appeared the government was again in “disarray” over the traffic-light system. She called on the government to be transparent about the data it used to make decisions on foreign travel.
The lack of transparency around data provided by the JBC has already caused concern, with the organisation rebuked by the Office for Statistics Regulation, the UK’s independent statistics regulator, for not being clear enough.
In relation to the vacancy at the top of the organisation, Liz Kendall, shadow health minister, said: “This critical post is vacant at a time when the JBC advice is more important than ever. The government has left this crucial body without a captain as we continue to sail through a storm. Ministers’ handling of the pandemic continues to be as reckless as ever.”
Sarah Olney, the Lib Dem’s transport spokesperson, said: “Travel chaos is running rife at the moment and the government must get a grip. Categories and confusion are harming the travel industry and ordinary people just wanting to go on a safe holiday … It is shameful that such a vital institution has been without leadership on the government’s watch.”
Pressure has been building on Johnson to redraw restrictions on foreign travel, with Sunak writing to the prime minister to demand changes to the UK quarantine policy. In the letter, seen by the Sunday Times, Sunak said UK border policy was “out of step with our international competitors”.