UK lockdown restrictions could remain in place alongside vaccine passport system

Government ministers meeting to discuss new travel scheme

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06: A traveler arrives at  the North Terminal at Gatwick Airport on February 6, 2021 in London, England. The UK Government has confirmed that anyone travelling to the UK from a country on the UK's travel ban "red list" from 15 February will be required to quarantine in a government-approved facility, such as a hotel room, for 10 days. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
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People in Britain who have been vaccinated could receive a certificate confirming they are safe to travel abroad even if coronavirus restrictions remain in place until autumn.

The government’s Covid-19 operations committee later is meeting on Friday to consider creating a system that creates some freedom for international travel.

While no final decisions are expected to be made on Friday, the Department for Transport is likely to be given approval to step up preparations.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday that the government was in talks with the travel industry about setting up a scheme with “all kinds of apps” that could be used.

“We’re looking at all sorts of things that we may wish to do in the months ahead,” he said, as ministers continued talks with travel companies.

Home Office minister Victoria Atkins denied that the government was bringing in “vaccine passports” but said an international system was being considered.

“We have no plans to introduce vaccine passports. The transport secretary has talked about the possibility of an international system but we are a long way from that at the moment,” she told Sky News on Friday.

A spokesman said that the government wanted to “open up international travel in a responsible, safe and fair manner”.

"We want to ensure there is an internationally recognised approach to enable travel and are working closely with international partners to do so,” he said.

With international travel still illegal, the World Travel and Tourism Council warned that the UK faced a greater hit to its economy than countries such as Germany that imposed fewer travel barriers to curb the spread of Covid-19. Office for National Statistics figures released on Friday said that the UK economy shrunk by a record 9.9 per cent last year.

“We believe the impact of constantly shifting policies on testing, quarantines and the placing of countries in so-called high-risk red zones will jeopardise the return of a sector which contributes nearly £200 billion ($275.65bn) annually to the UK economy,” WTTC president Gloria Guevara said.

But Ms Atkins said next week was "critical" when asked when the UK could emerge from lockdown.

Mr Johnson is due to announce his road map out of lockdown on February 22.

"Next week is a critical week, we are going to gather all of the data – both internationally and our own data,” Ms Atkins said. “At this point we’ve just got to keep tight and do all we can to keep the pandemic under control.”

Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said that some restrictions might need to remain in place until all adults are inoculated against the disease.

She said that it was “still difficult to say” whether rules would be tighter this summer than they were in summer 2020.

“I think we are going to have to have some measures in place until the whole population is vaccinated, at least all of the adult population,” she said.

"And even then I think we'll need to know more about transmission before we can release everything and get back to life as it was."

It is understood ministers are suggesting face masks and social distancing rules should remain mandatory for many months after restaurants, pubs and offices reopen.

"The more restrictions we have in place, like social distancing rules, the more we can do in terms of easing," a government source told The Times.

Sir Jeremy Farrer, head of the Wellcome Trust research fund, said it was “not sensible” for ministers to set a date for lifting restrictions.

“The data has to drive us and in 2020 we lifted restrictions too quickly when the data would not really have allowed that and as a result the transmission went back up in this country,” he said.

Prof John Edmunds, a scientific adviser to the government, warned that some restrictions could remain in place until the end of the year. He said that loosening restrictions too hastily could drive the R number – a measure of how fast an infected person spreads the disease – would rise above 1, indicating the virus is in widespread circulation.

“If we opened schools I think the reproduction number would get close to 1 and possibly exceed 1. If we opened them up completely, if we opened secondary schools and primary schools at the same time, I suspect we’d be lucky to keep the reproduction number below 1,” he told ITV.