Hopes rise for changes to travel rules as government unveils winter plan

Industry leaders remain cautious about how far the government will go in a review due by October 1 despite reports that both the traffic light system and PCR tests could be scrapped.

A relaxation of restrictions on travel appears likely, with the government announcing its Covid autumn and winter plan yesterday and promising “shortly to set out a revised framework for international travel”.

Health secretary Sajid Javid told MPs on Tuesday that transport secretary Grant Shapps would present changes to the regime “as soon as he can” which would “please” those demanding the removal of restrictions and PCR tests.

However, Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer told Travel Weekly: “The government is quite capable of making one statement one day and the opposite the next. The sooner a relaxation is announced the better.”

A senior aviation source close to discussions suggested the government had given “a sense of direction rather than a firm commitment” to remove restrictions, but added: “We expect a major review.”

Airlines see benefits in retaining a modified traffic light system. The source explained: “The key differential is how you treat non-vaccinated people. This is not just about UK returning passengers. There could be benefits in retaining the system so green means go for all, not just those vaccinated.”

The source insisted: “The traffic light model isn’t broken and can give granularity. It’s the implementation that is broken. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The government is due to review the red-amber-green lists by Thursday of this week. The source noted combining the system review with that country review “would seem ambitious”, but added: “We don’t expect to wait until September 30 [for it]. They have all the data they need.

“Doing as much as possible at once would be beneficial. Piecemeal changes do nothing to help the industry. We’re saying to the government ‘Move quickly. Furlough is about to end.  The industry needs traffic flows reinstated as soon as possible.’ We think they realise that now.

“They could make the decision to remove PCR tests any time. It makes no sense the public spending millions on PCR tests that bring no benefit. There will be industry activity to force that.”

The source warned: “There is no buffer now. The review and the end of furlough are too close together. The chancellor has said furlough will end, but if the review keeps the sector locked down there is a strong case for a sectoral extension of furlough.

“If it’s too cautious the trend for traffic to move to other markets will increase. If airlines believe the market will be supressed for many months they will take a view of staff resources.”

The source added: “This week’s country review is not a sideshow if they retain the traffic light system. If they’re reviewing the system but not removing it, the country review could be important. But if they move countries around this week and then remove the system that would undermine the whole thing.”

Asked a question by a member of the public on when strict travel rules will ease during a Downing Street press conference yesterday, prime minister Boris Johnson said: “I appreciate that people are very frustrated about the travel rules but it is vital that we do whatever we can to stop the virus being reimported and particularly to control new variants when they are at risk of coming in.”

He added that it was “reasonable” to ask people to take tests when they are returning from international holidays, saying the government “will be saying more” on the matter “shortly”.

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