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Government ‘must extend airport Covid lifeline to wider travel industry’

The government has been urged to extend support for airports affected by the closure of UK travel corridors to the wider travel industry.

Aviation and maritime minister Robert Courts revealed the start of the airport support plan via Twitter on Saturday night ahead of new travel restrictions being imposed from 4am today (Monday).

He said: “Closing our travel corridors will help prevent the spread of Covid variants in the UK.

“I know the impact this will have on the aviation sector, so to help limit this I am announcing our scheme to provide sport to airports and ground operations will open this month.

“The Airport and Ground Operations Support Scheme will help airports reduce their costs and we will be aiming to provide grants before the end of the financial year. Further details to follow soon.

The scheme was announced in November alongside the Test to Release scheme but with no set start date. It will involve grants of up to £8 milllion per applicant, to be used to cover fixed costs, such as business rates.

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced the changes to the UK’s travel rules at a Downing Street briefing on Friday, saying they would “protect against the risk of as yet unidentified new strains” of Covid.

 The new rules will be in place until at least February 15, he said.

Courts’ announcement triggered a series of responses from across the trade, with calls for specific sector support for agents and operators who have been unable to trade for at least ten months while having to deal with holiday refunds and alterations.

For example, Spires Travel replied to Courts saying: “Travel agents and tour operators need financial support as well. The last time our business has any income was February 2020. With all travel corridors closed for the foreseeable future it looks like we have another few months of no income.”

Travel agent Simon Oram tweeted: “How about grants for travel agents who have had no new business and had to contend with refund after refund since March 2020? The travel industry isn’t just aviation and airports.”

Others criticised the action and support as being too late.

Which? Travel editor Rory Boland joined the calls for financial aid to be extended.

He said: “It’s understandable that the government wants to severely restrict travel for a period, and this is far more sensible than the stop-start approach of travel corridors.

“Airlines are now likely to start cutting the number of flights to a bare minimum or stopping routes altogether, so it’s crucial that airlines make it clear to customers if they need to return early to avoid being stranded like many were last year.

“Passengers also need to be given clear information on the new requirements for testing before departure.

“With the travel industry now effectively closed, it’s vital that tailored support is provided for the industry. Many firms that would ordinarily be in good financial health have been left on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Meanwhile, Iata said it was “deeply disappointing” to see all travel corridors shut down, and universal testing and quarantine requirements imposed on all UK arrivals.

The airline trade body added: “Airlines understand and support the priority on protecting public health in the face of the global Covid-19 crisis. But, after nearly a year of battling the virus, the absence of co-ordination among governments is shocking.

“Since the beginning of the year we have seen Canada, the UK and the US introduce stricter measures to address concerns over developments in the Covid-19 crisis with little consistency between them from the perspective of the traveller.

“The weeks ahead could bring even greater challenges in the efforts to control Covid-19 before we begin to realise the benefits of lockdowns and vaccinations.

“To maintain orderly facilities for essential travel and confidence in the measures that are being taken by governments, it is critical that governments work together more closely.

“In the case of the UK, the government must also understand the severe economic impact that imposing universal testing and quarantine measures will have.

“To maintain a viable air transport sector capable of leading the recovery, a financial support lifeline is critical.”

Jack Winchester, analyst at City research firm Third Bridge, said: “2020 was a painful year for the UK airport sector and 2021’s fortunes are very much reliant on whether vaccine uptake will be quick enough to save the crucial summer season.

“What makes the dire passenger demand worse, though, is the basic unpredictability of air travel demand right now. 

“Ramping up staffing levels and preparing to process passengers is a costly process, and the current uncertainty risks airports – and others, like airlines and ground handlers – preparing to meet demand, only for a recovery to be a mirage if Covid cases persist. 

“Even a nascent recovery in passenger demand brings its own challenges, particularly for the UK’s smaller airports – while we can see upside if passengers opt to travel as much as they can from smaller airports, these same airports may be forced into bidding wars with nearby peers as they compete for airlines’ passenger volumes, on which a significant chunk of revenues are typically dependent.”

The comments came after the Sunday Times reported that quarantine hotels could be used for arrivals into the country coupled with the use of GPS and facial recognition to check that people are staying in isolation.

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