Kirklees Labour councillor finds his family at the heart of the travel ban.

By David Wibberley

The move to add Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, and the Philippines to England’s coronavirus ‘red list’ has brought accusations that the decision was purely political decision and not based on scientific data.

The ‘red list’ is the list issued by the Department of Transport of countries from which entry to the UK is banned due to the current Coronavirus restrictions. With the addition of these four new countries this will bring the total on the UK list to 39.

The move, which will take effect from 4am on Friday, 9 April, is in response to concerns about new variants of COVID-19, like those first detected in Brazil and South Africa. It means international visitors who have departed from or transited through those nations in the previous 10 days will be barred from entering the UK.

British and Irish citizens and those with residence rights in the UK will be allowed to enter but will have to arrive at a designated port and then pay to stay in a government-approved quarantine hotel for 10 days.

A government statement said the decision to add these four countries came at a critical time for the vaccine programme. It said: “With over 30 million vaccinations delivered in the UK so far, the additional restrictions will help to reduce the risk of new variants – such as those first identified in South Africa (SA) and Brazil – entering England. So far, surveillance has found that few cases of the South African variant have been identified as being imported from Europe, with most coming from other parts of the world.”

But not everyone believes the government decision is being driven by data. In a letter to the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Dominic Raab, Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah said: “Contrary to what the government is saying, it is clearly not making decisions led by science/data”. She added: “The government is knowingly and consciously discriminating against Pakistan and the Pakistani diaspora community”.

Imran Hussain, Labour MP for Bradford East has also questioned the motives behind the travel ban. In a statement he said: “Placing countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh on the travel ‘red list’ when other countries that are experiencing higher rates of infections are not included has however raised several concerns and leaves the government facing serious questions around whether the decision was based on science supported by their data or whether it was purely political”.

Ms Shah said: “According to recent available data for the last seven days, France, Germany and India have substantially higher numbers of infection per 100,000”, head of population. Pakistan has 13, Bangladesh has 15 and Kenya has 17 per 100, 000; whereas India has 24, Germany 137 and France 403. Britain has an infection rate over three times higher than Kenya, currently 54.

Overseas the decision to add Pakistan to the UK’s travel ‘red list’ has brought criticism from Pakistan’s Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, Asad Umar. In a tweet Mr Umar said: “Every country has a right to take decisions to safeguard the health of their citizens. However, the recent decision by the UK government to add some countries including Pakistan on the red list raises a legitimate question whether choice of countries is based on science or foreign policy”.

Councillor Aafaq Butt is among those caught up by the travel ban.

Kirklees Labour councillor for the Heckmondwike ward, Aafaq Butt has found his family at the heart of the travel ban. Cllr Butt’s wife Shazia is now in Pakistan and unable to return home. Mrs Butt travelled to Pakistan last week to attend her mother’s funeral in line with government guidelines.

Mr Butt explained that his mother- in-law had been in hospital following a short illness. He said:” My wife was going to go out and see her mother but when we heard she was making progress we decided that the risk was too great. Then we heard she had passed away”.

He went on to say: “In normal times you would just pick up your passport and get a ticket”.

Mr Butt explained that his wife had to have a Covid test and then wait 24 hours before she could book her return ticket. Now Mrs Butt does not know if her return ticket will be honoured or when she will get home. There has been a mass scramble for airline tickets, Mr Butt says that the airlines are capitalising on the situation charging up to £2000 for a one-way ticket home.

Mrs Butt said that the decision for his wife to travel was not taken lightly, he said: “It is difficult for any mother to leave her children at the best of times, we just hope the rules will change very soon”.

Until then all Mr Butt and his four sons can do is wait for the safe return of his wife and their mother.

The government said that to stop the spread of potentially harmful variants into the UK, more stringent measures are in place for people who have travelled from or passed through a country on the list where travel to the UK is banned (the ‘red list’) in the last 10 days before arrival.

This means nationals arriving to England from countries on the ‘red list’ will be required to quarantine in Government-approved hotels for 10 days. Mrs Butt included. The rate for one adult in one room for 10 days (eleven nights) is £1,750. The additional rate for further adult (or a child over 12) is £650, and for a child between the ages of 5 and 12the rate is £325. There is no additional cost for children under 5-years-old and they will not be tested.

The quarantine package covers the cost of transport from the airport to the designated hotel, food, accommodation and testing.

Mr Hussain also said that he had written to Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary to highlight concerns from a number of his constituents regarding the excessive fees for hotel quarantine. He said: “The Government must ensure that these fees and associated costs are proportionate and must ensure that sensible repayment plans are out in place for those with little savings who have no option but to travel, such as the death of a parent or close relative abroad”.

In calling for clarity on the criteria used to inform the decisions about which countries to put on and take off the ‘red list’ Ms Shah said: “As of today the South African variant isn’t a concern in Pakistan whereas this isn’t the case for example in France and other countries”.
Ms Shah went on to say: “This begs the question, why hasn’t the Government extended the ‘red list’ to France, Germany and India?”

In March Ms Shah had used a parliamentary question to ask what scientific data was being used in deciding which countries were on the ‘red list’ She received a holding response suggesting that more time was needed to answer the question. At the time of writing Ms Shah was still awaiting an answer.