Controversial government quarantine plans are set to be watered down by the end of the month with the introduction of air bridges with low virus countries.
A rethink is expected in the face of growing travel industry and political opposition against the imposition of a blanket 14-day isolation on all arrivals in the UK from June 8.
The measures are now expected to be eased three weeks later as part of a planned review amid warnings that a hard line quarantine approach would devastate the travel and tourism sector already struggling with the impact of Covid-19.
Government sources are widely quoted today as indicating that air bridges are likely to be introduced when the quarantine restrictions are reviewed on June 29.
A senior government official reported by The Times said the implementation of air bridges in time for at least part of the summer holiday season was becoming “more likely” with work taking place across Whitehall.
One Whitehall source told The Telegraph: “There is definitely an intention to get [air bridge] agreements in place ready to announce at the point of the next review.
“Everyone in government wants to scrap it or make the air bridges work apart from the Home Office which is feeling slightly under attack.”
The regulations enacting quarantine from June 8 will be laid in Parliament today and it remains possible that a vote on the matter could be forced in a revolt by MPs.
George Morgan-Grenville, chief executive of operator Red Savannah, who is leading an industry campaign against the quarantine, said: “Allowing air bridges from the end of June is to be welcomed but we still need quarantine to be quashed.
“With the very idea of quarantine still being planned for June, it is putting off people from booking.
“So the industry is hurting terribly and still faces three months of no sales at all – April, May and June.
“The very word ‘quarantine’ is stopping sales in the sector.
“We now need to see the government clearly state that quarantine will be abandoned, the FCO advice not to travel amended and that bookings can be taken for end of June onwards. Otherwise we fear the implications.”
The latest developments – also featuring on the front page of the Guardian today – came as Advantage Travel Partnership wrote to home secretary Priti Patel and foreign secretary Dominic Raab calling for air bridges to be established and a ban on all but essential overseas travel to be reviewed.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the independent agents’ consortium, wrote on behalf of a group of travel associations including the BTA, Aito and the SPAA, and warned that the two-week quarantine would be “hugely damaging” to the UK inbound and outbound travel sectors.
She wrote: “Recent media coverage has alluded to these concerns being primarily amongst so-called ‘luxury’ tour operators and hoteliers, thus implying that this may not be a universal concern to the vast majority of agents who sell travel-related services for both consumers and businesses in the UK.
“We wish to correct this impression and also outline a number of concerns that the British travel industry has around current government regulations.”
Advantage called for a quick establishment and utilisation of international air bridges between destinations deemed to be Covid-19 safe or free countries by both the UK and the corresponding foreign government.
The agent body also supports calls from UK travel companies to change the planned 14-day quarantine period for UK arrivals and requests this is reviewed urgently.
And it is demanding an immediate review of the current Foreign Office blanket ban on travel.
Lo Bue-Said added: “While we fully support and appreciate the need for the health and safety of British citizens when travelling overseas on business or leisure to be paramount in government considerations, we believe that the current strategies are too draconian, short-sighted and not balanced and will, in effect, deeply damage the travel industry which contributes significantly to the UK economy in taxes, foreign exchange and employment.”
UK officials are looking to negotiate the travel corridors with other low-risk countries such as Greece and Australia.
In an apparent about-turn, Greek tourism minister Harry Theoharis told The Telegraph: “I would consider it a positive step if at some point the UK lifted the restrictions on visitors returning from Greece to the UK.”
The Department for Transport is expected to publish new guidelines for “safe” travel, including face coverings or masks throughout the journey, temperature checks, social distancing in airports and contactless travel including for check-ins and payments.
An Airport Operators Association spokesman said: “Once these guidelines are agreed and given that they are based on a common European baseline, this puts in place the right conditions for opening up air bridges to low-risk countries.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of trade body Airlines UK, said: “The 29 June review period is key, either for removing the quarantine altogether or introducing a decent number of air bridges.
“Government needs to agree on the criteria for establishing these and we have fed in where we think there is demand from the passenger perspective.
“The fundamental principle is that where a country is low-risk there should be a very good reason why we’re not starting travel again.
“The 29th of June is the ambition but if they can do it quicker than this all the better. That will start to minimise the economic damage caused by the quarantine.”
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