The UK is expected to lift restrictions on vaccinated travellers from the UAE shortly.
On October 4, the UAE is to join 17 other countries whose vaccine certificates will be accepted for entry into the UK.
In an exclusive interview with The National, British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the resolution of a “technical issue" that led to the UAE being kept off the list of countries from where vaccinated travellers could enter the UK without mandated isolation.
“We are going to see this resolved very quickly,” Mr Shapps said.
Asked whether the UK considered the UAE’s vaccine programme as being different from campaigns by the 17 countries announced last Friday, Mr Shapps said: “The simple answer is they are not”.
“There is a small technical issue to deal with, I think something like the date of birth on the verification app, and we're going to crack it and get it resolved,” he said.
Speaking to The National at the Department for Transport, he stressed the importance of the UAE to the UK and said his first overseas official trip since the Covid-19 pandemic began would be to the UAE in November, as he is expected to visit Expo 2020 Dubai.
“I love the UAE. I'm looking forward to coming on the 22nd of November for Expo. The UK and the UAE are tremendous friends,” Mr Shapps said.
“We appreciate everything the UAE did, with the beginning of Covid-19 and helping with transit. And now with Afghanistan.”
The Cabinet minister said London was grateful for support during the international withdrawal from Afghanistan, when the UAE helped with the relocation of tens of thousands of people.
“Our appreciation runs incredibly deep,” Mr Shapps said.
“I have probably spoken to my counterpart, the Minister of Transport in the UAE, as much or more than 90 per cent of ministers around the world. So we've been in very, very good contact throughout this.
“Everything about the UAE is incredibly efficient and impressive. And we don't want to hold it up, unnecessarily”.
He said the Emirates had been formerly on the red list “largely because it was a transit location it wasn’t concern about the UAE per se, it was about the transit and the amount of traffic”.
The UK has now decided to use different measures for travellers, if they were in transit or working, according to their country of origin.
Mr Shapps reflected on the last 18 months and the disruption of Covid-19.
"One of the really interesting things for a transport secretary to say is ‘you don't always need to travel to achieve an outcome," he said.
"And almost exactly the flip side of the coin, what we've learnt is, when you don't meet people in person, you just don't get the same value out of the conversation. And so both have been incredibly valuable lessons”.
That dynamic will be important in forging a strategy going ahead, Mr Shapps said.
He said work was continuing to simplify the rules for travel, in addition to automating much of the data sharing and collection.
Aviation travel has been disrupted greatly due to Covid-19, and Mr Shapps said it was similar in some ways to the impact of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the measures needed after that for travel.
“It is as big, bigger in fact, in terms of the disruption to aviation. September 11, other than for a week, didn't stop aviation and the way [Covid-19] stopped aviation for a year and a half, so far and counting,” he said.
“It is every bit as significant. I think the big difference is that there are lots of things that we can do”, to simplify travel.
He predicted that vaccine passports will be part of travel for the foreseeable future. He said the next stage for Covid-19 is to move from being a pandemic to becoming endemic.
“And it's not likely as far as I can tell, to ever not be endemic. And therefore, a lot of countries will require full vaccination to allow travel and you know, it will become it will sort of drop into the background just by becoming the norm”.
However, the rules around those vaccine passports are still unclear, as each country’s measures differ.
Mr Shapps said the UK was working firstly through the G7, and then other international groupings such as the G20, OECD countries and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
“The world has a lot of work to do on this,” he said.
“Right now we are recognising MHRA, so the definition of the Medicines Agency here – which typically are the same that the US and the European Union recognise, although we've all ended up approving them at different times and through our own systems”.
He added: “There is an argument of course to ensure that we have Covax vaccines recognisable, or WHO recognisable. There's a lot of work the world needs to do to get this together.”
Setting out a vision for air travel, Mr Shapps said it should be “more trouble-free – easier flow, quieter aircraft, cleaner aircraft, less CO2 eventually to zero – and less of an ordeal.”
The greatest long-term challenge will be “decarbonising transport”, while in the short term the real challenge is to “restart the travel economy”, he said.
As a sign of the British government’s intent to decarbonise all transport, Mr Shapps will next week visit the world's first zero-carbon hydrogen aircraft that is being developed in Britain.
The 20-seat Dornier, designed by the California firm ZeroAvia with some UK funding, is what Mr Shapps has called “the future”.
“We need to get to guilt-free flying, to be in a position where you can fly to Dubai or Abu Dhabi and you're not thinking ‘what's my carbon footprint?’, that you're not doing any harm to the planet.”
Building clean technology aircraft was “the pinnacle of a complex process” in engineering, said Mr Shapps, who is also a pilot.
“If we can get there in planes we really can save the planet,” he added.
He also praised Rolls-Royce, which has flown a single-seat electric aircraft that can reach a speed of 480 kilometers an hour.
“I'm extremely optimistic about technology,” he said, adding he was convinced airlines would have electric or hydrogen aircraft “certainly within a decade and maybe quicker”.
“I think smaller passenger aircraft, maybe island-hoppers for the islands off Scotland, will be sooner.”
As for the immediate need to restart the travel economy, Mr Shapps said, “I'm really concerned about our airports”, which led him and Chancellor Rishi Sunak to develop a scheme to help airports pay their council taxes.
“I am very concerned about regional connectivity, I really want to see these airports come back to life again," he said.
"Despite having the world's first railways and, pretty extensive road networks, etc, there are still parts of the country where you can't easily get around or to the capitals or other major cities unless you use the airport.
"Regional airports are extraordinarily important to us”.
Mr Shapps also disclosed that tunnelling for the High Speed 2 (HS2) railway line, that will send trains at 400kph between London and Birmingham, in the English Midlands, was going 50 per cent quicker than projected.
The £80 billion project, that has been dogged by cost and environmental issues, could now deliver before its three-year schedule.
“The tunnelling is going incredibly well, it's actually going faster than was projected, so we are way ahead," he said.
"It's proceeding about a third faster than we thought it was going, to maybe even half.”
He said the 170-metre boring machines, weighing 2,000 tonnes, were “doing phenomenal work” digging under the Chiltern Hills, north of London.
Mr Shapps said there were lessons from HS2 and other transport developments that the UK could share with the world.
Britain could also share its experience in planning for decarbonisation and legislating for the future, he said.
“We have the most forward-leaning, autonomous vehicle legislation in the world in this country”.