Analysis: How air corridors will end quarantine

Industry and DfT have been working on plans for weeks, says Ian Taylor

The industry has responded with anger and no little frustration to the government’s imposition of blanket quarantine restrictions from today, June 8 – and small wonder.

The Home Office admission on Sunday that “it is very hard to imagine how it will work in practice . . . [but] we are not expecting huge numbers of people” betrays how little the quarantine measures have been thought through.

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We wait to see whether a legal challenge by British Airways’ parent IAG, Ryanair and easyJet succeeds. The airlines claim the restrictions are unlawful and want a judicial review.

The grounds for a judge to find quarantine unlawful appear flimsy – to say nothing of undemocratic – if the restrictions, in the form of a ‘statutory instrument’, are accepted by Parliament when laid before MPs. But I’m no lawyer.

Perhaps the court may consider there is sufficient cause for an injunction pending a fuller hearing, which in turn might force the government to present whatever ‘scientific advice’ it has drawn on.

Yet, in reality, the quarantine restrictions may barely delay the resumption of outbound travel, with a restart always likely to be limited to Britain’s EU neighbours for a time.

Work on the way to restart – via ‘air bridges’, ‘air corridors’ or what are now increasingly referred to as ‘travel corridors’ because they will include Eurostar and ferry routes – was already under way before the Home Office quarantine raised its head.

But there was a delay after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced there would be quarantine restrictions on May 10 until Home Secretary Priti Patel confirmed the details on May 22.

The latter announcement signalled a new urgency to the work on travel corridors. Immediately following it, an aviation industry source told Travel Weekly: “The length of time between the PM announcing the quarantine and Patel confirming it put the brakes on.

“The announcement unlocked our ability to engage with the government. Now we’re in a better position to talk about the next stage.”

The industry’s anger at restrictions and the savvy campaign of Red Savannah chief executive George Morgan-Grenville has secured media headlines, but it belies a somewhat more measured approach by industry representatives in private.

The aviation source said: “Airlines are looking to restart in July. It won’t make a lot of difference if quarantine is just [for] June. The industry’s intention is that we get a fundamental change at the first review.”

A leisure industry source agreed: “Nobody is particularly worried about the first three weeks.

“They’re interested in how robust the three-week review is, in the bilateral steps, and in the package of measures – masks, testing, temperature checks – to remove quarantine.”

A CART before the quarantine horse

The idea of ‘air bridges’ originally came out of the SARS outbreak of 2003 and the problems faced by air cargo crews forced to go into quarantine following a flight.

The procedures took time to finalise, but have been enthusiastically picked up by the Covid-19 Aviation Recovery Taskforce (CART) set up by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

They have also been adopted by airline association Iata and by UK airlines and officials at the Department for Transport [DfT].

The aim is to create ‘corridors’ to avoid Covid-19 restrictions, each comprising a ‘clean’ airport, ‘clean’ aircraft, ‘clean’ crew and ‘clean’ arrival airport.

An essential element of this is the clarification and acceptance of common health protocols for airports, airlines, crew and passengers.

ICAO issued its guidelines in a framework document entitled Takeoff: Guidance for Air Travel through the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis on June 1.

These largely match the guidance on Covid-19 safety protocols issued by the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on May 21.

The EASA guidance will form the basis for airport and airline operations across Europe, the ICAO guidance for much of the rest of the world.

As the UK is due to leave EASA on January 31 next year in line with Brexit, the Department for Transport and CAA will sign off UK guidance separately. But it will be in line with EASA and ICAO guidance.

This recommends routine sanitation and disinfection measures, limiting airport access, health screening, contact tracing, physical distancing “to the extent possible” and face masks for airport workers, crew and passengers.

It will also require airlines add health-monitoring questionnaires to check-in and modify hand luggage, seat allocation, boarding and inflight practices.

Restart and recovery

Details of the UK’s protocols were close to finalised more than a week ago. At the time, an aviation industry source told Travel Weekly: “The work started with the DfT three or four weeks ago through the Restart and Recovery unit, working with various government departments and industry groups.”

The Restart and Recovery group is a cross government-industry group set up by the DfT about a month ago.

The source noted: “There is still a discussion around temperature checks [at airports]. From a medical perspective these are pointless, but some in the industry are saying they could be useful in giving passengers confidence and in discouraging anyone with symptoms from travelling.”

However, the source added: “It would involve quite a lot of money being spat up the wall by airports. It’s up to government.”

Another remaining issue was “are we going to mandate these protocols or recommend them”.

But these issues can be easily resolved. In May, the DfT hired business services firm KPMG to complete the process and gain government clearance and the agreement of the devolved administrations.

These protocols, likely to be signed off any day, will provide the basis for judging airports and airlines ‘clean’.

The second key element to establishing travel corridors is agreement by governments at both ends of a route that the common standards are in place and travellers between the countries will be of sufficiently low risk.

In the UK’s case, that will require the government to be satisfied the other country has a low infection rate, that there are measures in place to limit the infection’s spread and the required health measures in place at both ends of the journey.

The source said: “In the EU, it is really only about risk assessment and a country not taking the piss [about the measures required]. Greece, Spain and Portugal have already said they want to work with the UK.

“Do we really want to open up to Sweden? They are not doing great. But the rest of Europe, with the exception of Russia, is a lower risk to us than us to them.

“The industry position is June 29 should be when the blanket quarantine ends. It would slot us in with the rest of Europe.

“The US will probably have to wait longer – the way they have handled Covid – and Latin America is way behind.”

UK airlines have submitted a list of 45 countries to which they wish air corridors to be prioritised, including the US, Mexico and the Caribbean, but in practice travel will restart initially to the EU plus possibly Turkey.

Relaxation of Foreign Office advice

Barring a resurgence of the UK’s Covid-19 infection rate, everything should be in place for the government’s three-week review of the quarantine measures on June 29 to allow a relaxation for travel to the EU to re-start immediately.

But the industry won’t simply wait for the process to unfold – it can’t. Airlines and operators need to be able to plan for the resumption and potential travellers need to be confident there is a fair chance of travelling to the destination and returning without being confined at home.

The aviation source insisted: “We need the Home Office to step down from its high horse. We have a good case to open on June 29, but airlines need the government to flag it earlier.

“The government needs to say ‘We will use the first review to loosen restrictions as much as possible’ or there is a fear they will roll it over for another three weeks and airlines will prioritise other markets.”

A final key component will be the relaxation of Foreign Office advice against all but essential travel, in place since March 17.

The Foreign Office will want to be seen to act independently of political pressure, as will the Home Office in relation to quarantine. But in reality they will act in concert and the decisions will be political.

The source said: “The Foreign Office hates the idea of travel advice being influenced by outsiders. But air bridges can’t happen without the Foreign Office being happy.

“The key is the medical provisions being confirmed.

“There has to be political pressure on the government to say ‘We’re going to open up’ to make the Foreign Office and Home Office act.”

That pressure is being applied through the daily barrage of warnings, legal threats, MPs’ questions and so on.

None of this is meant to imply that implementing travel corridors is simple. Even with bilateral acceptance of ICAO/EASA health standards, health declarations, contact tracing and the rest, there will be issues extending the arrangements beyond Europe initially.

The challenges of travellers falling sick while away, repatriation, travel insurance and so on will remain. It is understood that medical insurance will be in place when travel restarts, but cancellation insurance is not yet available.

The risks of a Covid-19 outbreak and re-imposition of restrictions, and maybe a largescale repatriation of holidaymakers, will remain everywhere for the foreseeable future.

All travel will be contingent – but that has nothing to do with quarantine.

MoreQuash Quarantine collective seeks legal action against restrictions

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Comment: So many questions remain over quarantine measures


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