Industry representatives met Department for Transport officials this week to thrash out alternatives to growing travel restrictions after Foreign Office advice against travel was extended to France, the Netherlands and Malta from 4am on Saturday.
Yet prospects of a speedy solution appear remote. Covid tests on arrivals and ‘regional corridors’ to replace blanket quarantines remain the most-likely ways to relax the rules but there remain barriers to both and disagreements on how to progress.
An update of the quarantine-exempt list of countries is expected on Thursday, but this week also sees a wider review of quarantine measures.
Airlines have been working with Iata on a proposal for a single test at airports, ports and Eurostar stations, yet the government seems set on a two-test system that would still require quarantine.
An aviation source involved in talks said: “There are high-risk markets where two tests may be required. But airlines would prefer a single test. There is a good case that a single test in many markets would give an acceptable risk. A double test would be a block to public desire to test because of the need to quarantine. A scenario with 10 days between tests is not going to fly with consumers.”
The source added: “The tests should be part of the NHS track-and-trace system. Germany allows tests before or after departure. UK nationals would probably prefer a test on arrival. For overseas visitors, it may be easier to test in their own country. That would also filter out people with infections before they fly.”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed the government is “working” on airport testing but appeared to rule out a single test, saying: “If you test somebody who is asymptomatic on day one [of infection] at the airport, it’s likely to pick up only 7% of people who have coronavirus, so isn’t useful on its own. You need to test after seven or eight days and ask people to quarantine in the meantime.”
The aviation source said: “The government is talking about a two‑test regime but there is nothing on the table.”
Following the latest quarantine announcement, Shapps noted: “People will have gone away knowing there was a significant risk.”
At the same time, he triggered heightened media speculation about which countries would be subject to restrictions next by admitting any showing more than 20 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 people could be subject to quarantine.
A senior leisure industry source said: “We can’t understand why it was necessary to act at 4am on Saturday and not 4am on Monday.
“A weekend’s worth of people were coming back anyway. It’s an opaque process and as much political as scientific. Some sensitivity from the government would make a real difference.”
However, the source said: “It’s dangerous for the industry to start deciding on health. The priority now is reinforcing the need for government support for the industry.
“A flexible replacement for furlough is probably most important to avoid growing redundancies.”
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, told The Telegraph: “The Canary Islands alone are equivalent to Manchester airport’s third biggest country market and are below the threshold of concern.
“Getting a regional corridor for the Canary Islands alone would salvage at least some of the summer trade. There is a suggestion that it could be signed off by a Cabinet sub-committee that doesn’t meet until August 24.
“But every week of delay is costing jobs and threatening the viability of businesses. There is an obvious case for regional travel corridors, but action needs to be taken now.”
A government spokesman said: “International arrivals from non-exempt countries must quarantine for the full 14 days, whether they get tested or not, as the incubation period for the virus means passengers may pose a risk to other passengers, loved ones and close contacts.
“Work is ongoing with clinicians, the devolved administrations and the travel industry to consider if and how testing could be used to reduce the self-isolation period, but any potential change would need to minimise the chance that positive cases are missed, and maximise compliance with self-isolation rules.”