The government is being urged to develop plans to re-start travel between “low-risk” countries as global Covid-19 lockdown measures are eased.
The call came from Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye as ministers prepare to draw up rules for a 14-day quarantine for arrivals into the UK – a measure heavily criticised by the aviation industry.
Ryanair chief executive O’Leary repeated his criticism of the quarantine plan, describing it as “idiotic and un-implementable”.
He said the policy had “no credibility” and predicted that it would be gone by June.
Holland-Kaye said UK should adopt a risk-based approach to flights and warned that the UK economy will suffer if blanket travel restrictions continue.
He also backed the idea of “immunity passports” to allow people who have already had Covid-19 to travel more freely.
Heathrow’s passenger numbers plunged 97% in April, from an average of 250,000 a day to between 5,000 and 6,000 since lockdown.
Holland-Kaye told Sky News: “This is a very minimal level of traffic, and I think that as long as the quarantine [travel ban] is in place, that will continue at those low levels.
“The quarantine cannot be in place for more than a relatively short amount of time if we are going to get the economy moving again. This is where we are urging the government to have a common international standard, working with other countries so that traffic can start to flow in a normal way between low-risk countries.”
UK nationals are now banned from all but essential international travel and borders are closed between many countries. The few flights that have landed have mainly been repatriation services to bring home Britons trapped abroad.
Ministers are planning to tell entrants to the UK to quarantine for two weeks and download the new tracing app being trialled on the Isle of Wight and soon to be introduced across the country.
Holland-Kaye suggested there should be a “free flow” of passengers between the UK and countries that have low risks of transmission.
He said: “I think that if the UK government, with one of the biggest aviation sectors in the world, were to get together with the European Union and the United States, between them they have the heft and the global, diplomatic and economic power to set that international standard.
“I think the approach to take is the risk-based approach as we do with security, where if two countries are very low-risk or free of transmission, there should be a free flow of passengers between those countries.
Holland-Kaye made the appeal as the airport prepared to screen passengers arriving at Heathrow Terminal 2 for high temperatures from the end of the week in a bid to identify travellers infected with coronavirus.
Thermal imaging cameras will automatically scan everyone who touches down at the terminal, aiming to spot those who have signs of fever. This will allow it to capture data that will be forwarded to the government.
The cameras form part of previously announced trials to combat the spread of coronavirus, which include procedures to reduce person-to-person contact, UV sanitation, and the efficient cleaning of trays at security.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The aviation sector is important to the UK economy and ministers are in regular contact with its senior representatives to discuss the challenges they are facing and ways we can support.
“We continue to look at the best ways to re-start all forms of transport, while also ensuring we limit the risk of creating a second wave of cases.”
Business secretary Alok Sharma told the Downling Street daily press conference on Sunday: “The health of the nation is not in some way different from making sure we take care of the health of the economy. In fact all the measures we have taken so far are about protecting lives and alos livelihoods.”