Behind the scenes

Who is to blame for the government’s ‘amber watchlist’ U-turn?

Whitehall insider suggests travel secretary will ‘eat s**t’ over travel confusion

Boris Johnson has abandoned plans for a new travel watch-list after a revolt by Tory MPs who claimed it would ruin the holiday plans of millions of people.

The government had planned the introduction of an “amber travel watch-list”, a group of countries that were at risk of being added to the “red list”, meaning returning travellers would be forced to self-isolate in hotels for ten days at their own expense.

Spain was among the countries under consideration for the additional list, however, Johnson yesterday said that he wanted a “simple” traffic-light system as government sources told The Times that “the plans had been abandoned”.

Hawks and doves

According to The Times, the plan for an amber watch-list was backed by Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who had argued “that people should be given more information about the risks when booking their holidays”. 

But the prime minister was also hit with opposition from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Travel Secretary Grant Shapps and International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, and Tory backbenchers had said “it would lead to a collapse in summer bookings”, the paper adds.

Cabinet sources told The Guardian that the plans were ultimately “killed off by the Treasury and Department for Transport” amid a rising “backlash from the travel industry” which had raised fears “it would leave holidaymakers in limbo”.

Another source told the paper that Johnson had “never personally been in favour”, but that the idea was first mooted during a “Covid O” meeting last week following concern among some in Whitehall that “a new variant could be carried back with travellers from Spain, Italy or Greece over the summer”.

“The watch-list 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. But there’s not a chance it will go ahead now,” said the Whitehall source.

Ministers had “signed off” on the plans for an amber watch-list, however, it was met with anger from Tory backbenchers who “bombarded Grant Shapps… and other ministers involved with calls and messages making their disquiet clear”, The Telegraph says.

One MP who spoke to the transport secretary to register his opposition told the paper “this is genuinely vote-losing stuff”, adding: “People are genuinely pissed off with this.” 

Having U-turned on the plan for another tier in the traffic-light system, “pressure is growing for the traffic-light system to be replaced with something much simpler, such as the rules used in America,” the paper adds.

Labour has moved to attack the government over the chaos, accusing the Conservatives of being in “total chaos” over border policy and saying “maximum clarity” was needed rather than “reckless U-turns” by No. 10.

Blame game

On a morning that the government has also announced changes to NHS Test and Trace in an effort to avoid a summer “pingdemic”, it is the travel U-turn that “ is attracting the most attention at Westminster this morning”, says Politico’s Alex Wickham.

“The finger is very much being pointed” at Shapps, he adds, with “no fewer than five sources in and around Cabinet” claiming “that he and the Department for Transport were to blame for the confusion” amid calls for “some pretty bloody recriminations”.

“Grant will have to eat shit for this,” a Whitehall source told the news site.

Johnson would appear to have avoided much of the fallout for the chaos following his pledge to oversee a “simple” system, with Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, saying “the prime minister has hit the nail on the head”.

“People want a clear and consistent travel system that they understand and that is workable,” he added. “We now need to go further and set our sights on the real prize this week – getting more countries onto that green list before it’s too late.”

However, the prime minister continues to face rising opposition over the existing system, with calls for clarification still mounting despite the decision to avoid adding a sixth tier to the system.

“Inconsistencies” in the existing system still need to be resolved, Stephen Hammond, a former transport minister and Tory chairman of the parliamentary group for business travel, told The Telegraph, adding: “My personal view is that I am not quite sure what is the difference between green and amber.”

“The graded traffic-light system has probably done its time, and I would go for a clearer system,” he continued. “We are moving to a point where we are recognising almost all of the world for travel if you are double-vaccinated. Freedom to move around ought to be more important.”

Simon Jupp, a Conservative member of the transport select committee, echoed Hammond’s suggestion, adding that “the rules must be simplified to build confidence in the travel industry and amongst passengers.

“More uncertainty will plunge morale even further and put thousands more jobs at risk. Green or red (no amber) is simpler and sensible,” he added.

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