Tuesday 23 February 2021 8:54 am

Matt Hancock: International travel could return sooner if vaccines work against new Covid variants

The health secretary has left the door open for international travel to return sooner than planned this summer if available vaccines work against emerging Covid variants.

Unveiling his roadmap for exiting lockdown yesterday, the Prime Minister said international travel will only resume from 17 May at the earliest.

Boris Johnson said the government first needed to assemble a travel taskforce assess the risks of bringing mutant variants back into the UK. The taskforce will review plans to resume international travel on 12 April.

However, Matt Hancock said today that the review could be sped up if evidence showed the vaccine proved effective against new variants.

“We do have to protect against these new variants, and that is a big challenge,” he told Sky News. “One of the reviews announced yesterday is a review into international travel. And that review will be informed by the evidence that we’re currently collecting on the impact of the vaccine on the so-called South Africa and Brazil new variants.

“If the vaccine works well against them, then we can be much more relaxed about international travel. If the vaccine doesn’t work against them, then that will be much, much more difficult.”

Data released yesterday showed the Pfizer vaccine is equally effective against the Kent variant of coronavirus as the original strain.

However, concerns still remain that new Covid variants including the South Africa and Brazil variants might be partially resistant to vaccines.

Ministers are considering plans to introduce vaccine passports to help resume flights abroad as restrictions gradually unwind.

“I think for things like international travel, other countries will unquestionably think of insisting upon them just like you might insist on a certificate that you’ve had a yellow fever jab,” The Prime Minister told last night’s Downing Street press conference.

Both Denmark and Sweden have announced plans to introduce digital vaccine certificates to kickstart tourism after almost a year of hibernation.

The Swedish government said it hoped to implement vaccine passports by June, and would work to make the national certificates compatible with international certificates being discussed by both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the EU.

Denmark last month said it would initially publish an online registry of people’s vaccination statuses by the end of February while it develops a long-term solution.

Meanwhile, Greece has led the charge in pressuring the EU to expand to scheme further across the continent.

Greece’s tourism minister this morning called on EU leaders to “move more quickly” to embrace vaccine certificates, as Athens seeks to repair its battered holiday industry.

“Looking at the reaction of some countries to vaccination certificate proposals, I feel there’s a lot of short sightedness. There’s more to be done now to prepare ourselves,” minister Harry Theocharis told the Financial Times.

British ministers are also mulling plans to reduce the need for hotel quarantine and the dreaded “red list” of banned countries, as coronavirus cases continue to decline.

Hancock said the government was looking at making travel “more facilitative” for incoming passengers, suggesting the tough hotel quarantine scheme might prove short-lived.