The government’s imposition of quarantine measures on travellers returning from Spain led to calls for alternative ways to lift restrictions, including ‘regional corridors’ and Covid tests on arrivals.
A powerful display of unity has seen almost 50 aviation industry bosses lobby Boris Johnson to rethink blanket quarantine requirements on arrivals from high risk countries.
Forty-seven airlines, airports and travel groups wrote to the prime minister to demand a “nuanced” policy after travellers returning from Spain were ordered to self-isolate for two weeks.
The letter, signed by the heads of British Airways, Tui, EasyJet and Jet2, and Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Luton airports, warned that post-Brexit plans to create an “outward-facing, global trading nation” were at risk. Others who have signed include Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer and association chairman Alistair Rowland (Co-op Midcounties).
Passengers entering the UK should be tested, allowing those with a negative Covid-19 result to avoid quarantine
Regional air bridge call
The letter also called for regional air bridges which will open up parts of “at risk” countries where coronavirus rates are low, including the Spanish islands, some US states and parts of Canada.
Arranged by Airlines UK, the letter said the “confusion over Spain emphasises the need for rapid progress” and that the sector “risks being permanently scarred”.
It added: “There is a clear way forward, that moves towards a more nuanced approach . . . we are urging the rapid introduction of regional travel corridors.
“We are in a situation where the government is advising against travel to areas of Spain that have lower rates of Covid than the UK.
“We will collectively continue to work hard on behalf of our customers facing uncertainty and disruption.
“At the same time, we are calling for the implementation of a structured announcement timeline and, working with the sector, for the publication by government of a strategy for the testing of passengers in the UK, alongside a regionalised approach to travel corridors, as a matter of urgency.
“Without action on this issue the aviation, travel and hospitality sectors will be put under further pressure, and the UK will not see the recovery in connectivity that it will need to support economic recovery and deliver the government’s ambition of becoming an outward facing, global trading nation
“We urgently request a meeting with you to discuss the challenge facing our sector and our proposed ways forward.”
The plea came as a change.org petition urging the prime minister to remove the Balearic and Canary islands from quarantine rules attracted more than 74,000 signatures.
Health secretary Matt Hancock today confirmed that the government is looking into whether it is possible to reduce the length of quarantine for travellers returning to England.
He told the BBC: “We are working on whether by testing people during that quarantine it is safe to then be able to release them earlier.
“That’s something that we’re working on, but we’re not imminently making an announcement on it,”
But he stressed that the rules will not change in “the next few days”.
Testing and tracing
Meanwhile, new research among UK consumers showed that 70% are in favour of testing and tracing instead of blanket quarantine measures re-introduced for Spain.
The poll was carried out by The PC Agency with independent research company AudienceNet, with 1,460 adults expressing an opinion.
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency and spokesman for the Quash Quarantine industry lobby group, said: “If we’re to live with coronavirus for the longer-term, then the government should be investing in Nightingale-style test facilities at UK airports so as to capture any signs of the virus before it enters the country.
“As most UK consumers believe, effective testing and tracing is the solution rather than economically-damaging quarantine measures. Testing may not capture everyone but it will significantly reduce the cases coming into the UK.”
A blanket quarantine measures for anyone entering the UK from Spain were imposed last weekend as evidence emerged of increasing coronavirus cases in Catalonia and other regions.
Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an agency of the European Union, shows case numbers rising in the last seven days in several countries, including Monaco, Gibraltar, Luxembourg, Belgium, Romania and Bulgaria.
Heathrow has supported calls for airport swab testing, similar to those carried out in other countries including Iceland, Austria and Greece.
An airline source involved in talks with the government said: “It brings home the fact we need to look at alternatives and there are two things with potential – regional restrictions, and testing and international screening standards.”
The source cited the lockdown in Leicester and said: “We won’t put forward anything that puts health at risk, but the principle of regional restrictions already applies in the UK. We’ll be talking to the government about what needs to change to do it. A lot of passengers will be asking the same. There will be a push for that.
“Second, we’re asking the government to look at testing and to talk to the industry about it.”
A second aviation source confirmed “the government is looking at quarantine restrictions on a regional basis”, but suggested: “We don’t see it as practically of much use. It would be difficult to enforce.”
The source also highlighted problems with testing, noting: “Any testing regime would be accompanied by risk. It’s not the silver bullet it has been pitched as.
“Because of the 14-day incubation period [for Covid-19], testing once or twice in a five to 10-day period is not helpful if you develop the virus on day 12.
“Other countries are trying this. Dubai is doing a lot of testing, but it is not the sole permitting factor [for entry]. They still quarantine people.
“We don’t think any government is confident testing is the sole way to allow people to travel.”
Leading airlines, including BA owner IAG, Lufthansa, American Airlines and United, called for testing in the US and Europe to open the transatlantic market.
But the government denied reports it is considering tests on arriving passengers to allow quarantine restrictions to be cut to 10 days.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps, returned home early from his own Spanish holiday on Wednesday and will now begin two weeks’ quarantine, said: “We had to act when we did. The figures since have shown why that was required. I’m desperately sad and sorry for people who have lost their holidays.”
Tui has cancelled holidays to the Balearics and Canary islands until August 4 and mainland Spain until August 10 after the UK extended its advice against non-essential travel to the country to include its islands.
Uncertainty and confusion ‘damaging’
Tui UK and Ireland managing director Andrew Flintham called on the government to work closely with the travel industry and remove the “blunt tool” approach to quarantine and consider the rapid introduction of regional travel corridors.
“The level of uncertainty and confusion created this week is damaging for business and customer confidence in travel,” he added.
The Airport Operators Association urged the government to switch to ‘regional travel corridors’ as it reported the Balearic and Canary islands alone accounted for 15% of all holiday flights from the UK in August last year.
The Global Business Travel Association also called for widening testing capabilities and requirements across the EU as a better alternative to blanket travel restrictions.
Executive director Dave Hilfman said: “Sudden and unilateral shifts in government response, such as imposition of quarantines or border closures, take a heavy toll on the travel industry, further impeding economic recovery and causing chaos for travellers.
“Increased testing is what we need to restart travel safely. It will restore confidence and revive travel demand whilst preventing new waves of infection. Borders cannot stay closed indefinitely, the economy needs trade to resume with people back to work and travelling.”
Airlines UK last week called for an emergency 12-month waiver of Air Passenger Duty to save 45% of the air routes out of the UK that would otherwise be lost due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.