The government’s policy switch towards regional travel corridors is no more than a “Pyrrhic victory” as travellers from seven Greek islands face quarantine restrictions on their return.
Kuoni boss Derek Jones hit out as transport secretary Grant Shapps made the announcement.
“This is a Phyrric (sic) victory,” Jones tweeted. “It shows why campaigning for regionalisation of quarantine was pointless. It adds complexity and solves nothing.
“We need a comprehensive testing regime for all UK arrivals.
“Nothing else (bar a vaccine) will make a difference.”
Jones, chief executive of Kuoni owner DER Touristik UK, urged the government to “focus on measures that really support travel industry recovery” such as a “robust” testing regime for UK arrivals and extended sector specific support.
His criticism added to industry reaction to the ‘islands policy’ announcement by Shapps which took islands including Crete, Mykonos, Santorini and Zante off the quarantine exemption list from 4am on Wednesday.
Shapps ruled out testing on arrival but revealed that quarantine combined with testing is “more promising”.
He added: “So we are actively working on the practicalities of using testing to release people from quarantine earlier than 14 days.
“For the reasons described, this could not be the pure test-on-arrival option, it would not work.
“But my officials are working with health experts with the aim of cutting the quarantine period without adding to infection risk or infringing on our overall NHS test capacity, which also now needs to cater to schools going back and universities returning.”
The new the policy will not necessarily open up additional islands immediately, Shapps confirmed.
“For example, when we removed Spain from the travel corridor list, cases were around 24 per 100,000. Today, that figure has risen to 127 and also remains too high in the Balearic and Canary Islands,” he said.
“On the other hand, Greece remains within our travel corridor programme, but our new analysis shows that some of the islands are well outside of parameters.
“Indeed, despite overall Greek infection rates being lower than ours, Scotland has already felt compelled to add the entirety of Greece, including the mainland, to quarantine.”
But Travel Counsellors founder David Speakman called on the travel industry to have the courage to challenge “the reasons and science” that supports the decision.
In a tweet he said: “Only a clear challenge based on science will deter Govt from irrational decisions that continually sucks life out of our industry. Fight to survive not acquiesce to flawed decisions.”
World Travel & Tourism Council president and chief executive Gloria Guevara described the policy shift as “just scratching the surface”.
She added: “We must abandon wholesale ineffective, destructive and costly quarantines – and replace them with rapid, cost-effective testing on departure at airports. The longer we wait, the more the ailing travel and tourism sector faces collapse.”
Guevara said: “Airport testing on departure and a robust testing and tracing programme, could help revive international business travel, particularly on key routes, such as between London and New York, which links two of the world’s biggest financial hubs.
“Testing, in addition measures such social distancing, mask wearing, hand sanitisation, enforced by the airlines, airports and other stakeholders, can reduce risk to a minimum while travelling.
“Unfortunately, the UK has seen community transmission continue to rise, where confusion and lack of enforcement reign about social distancing measures and the wearing of face masks.
“We cannot afford to wait any longer. WTTC has revealed this year a staggering £22 billion looks set to be lost from the UK economy due to the disappearance of international travel.
“Public health should remain the priority, however the UK government must shift its focus to implement a robust testing scheme at airports to tackle the issue head on to restore confidence to travel, bring stability back to the sector, revive the UK’s flagging economy and save millions of jobs.”
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren told the BBC the government’s latest change to its quarantine rules was “too little, too late”, as the peak of the summer holiday season had passed.
“This is something we have argued for a long time – it should not have been a blanket instrument when it comes to quarantine. It should be based on risk and on a much more targeted approach,” he said.
The government must devise a plan for UK aviation, with Lundgren warning that the sector would not recover in a meaningful way without one.
A spokesman for British Airways’ owner IAG said it was “evident” in July that islands should be treated separately and the government was “too slow in making obvious decisions”.
“For most families, summer is now over and the damage to the industry and the economy is done,” he said.
“We need to get on with (testing). We are way behind other countries on what has to be a more nuanced approach.”
Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “Holidaymakers are acutely aware of the risks involved with foreign travel, but this latest snap change still offers no clarity as to how these decisions are made.
“This approach continues to cost travellers dearly, either through paying extortionate air fares in the scramble to get home, or because speculation that their destination may be added to the quarantine list causes them to needlessly cancel a holiday.
“It’s clear that the current travel corridor system is not working for passengers, and is further damaging confidence in the sector.”
He called for a “major reassessment” of the UK government’s approach “to ensure holidaymakers don’t continue to lose money, and tour operators and airlines have a better opportunity to get back on their feet financially”.
Glyn Jones, chief executive of Southend airport owner Stobart Aviation, called the initiative a much needed and positive step from the government that needs to be implemented in a clear and understandable way.
“That being said, the aviation industry has felt the full impact of the virus and we need a unified approach to offer confidence,” he added.
“With various tests, time frames, costs and applications available, it is vital that results are reliable and resources supported to begin to re-build the industry.”
The Department for Transport, outlining the policy change, said: “Announcements on which islands and countries will be added or removed will continue to be made as part of the current weekly process.
“It is not considered safe to implement a fully regional system for international travel corridors – there is too much movement between high risk and lower risk regions within single countries and regional health information is not sufficiently reliable.
“However, when a region has natural boundaries – like an island – the risks reduce.
“Any changes will only apply to land that has a clear boundary or border where there is robust, reliable and internationally comparable data available.
“The island must also have direct flights to the UK or at a minimum, transport must have taken place through exempt territories.
“The government has made consistently clear it will take decisive action if necessary to contain the virus, including removing destinations from the travel corridors list rapidly if the public health risk becomes too high.”
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