US president Joe Biden and prime minister Boris Johnson will discuss restarting transatlantic travel at a meeting on Thursday, but hopes of an imminent relaxation of restrictions have been dashed with agreement limited to establishing a taskforce on transatlantic travel.
The government confirmed on Wednesday evening that Johnson and Biden are ready to agree a new Atlantic Charter at a meeting in Cornwall ahead of the G7 Summit on Friday.
The Charter, modelled on a wartime agreement between Winston Churchill and US President Roosevelt in 1941, is “expected to include a commitment to resume UK-US travel”, according to a government statement.
It will outline eight areas where the US and UK governments agree to work together, “underpinned by a series of new policy priorities”.
These include “working to open up travel between the UK and US as soon as possible . . . through a new travel taskforce which will make recommendations on safely reopening international travel”.
The taskforce “will explore options for resuming UK-US travel and ensure that the UK and US closely share thinking and expertise on international travel policy”.
The new taskforce will be headed in the UK by transport secretary Grant Shapps and chaired by senior Department for Transport officials and their US counterparts.
Shapps previously oversaw the UK’s Global Travel Taskforce which established the existing traffic light system for categorising countries as green, amber or red.
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association (BTA), welcomed the charter as “a step in the right direction for transatlantic travel”.
But he said: “This is the latest in a long line of travel taskforces which so far have only wreaked further devastation on our industry.
“Jobs won’t be saved or livelihoods protected until we’re given a certainty on dates for the resumption of international travel.”
Wratten argued: “UK GDP lost £630 million in the first week of June due to the lack of transatlantic business travel.
“The Charter needs to deliver international protocols that are straightforward and easy to implement across the globe. This can only be done if the travel industry on both sides of the Atlantic is consulted and involved from the outset.”
He added: “Until travel can return to 50% of pre-pandemic levels, the UK government must provide targeted financial support to the sector which remains in lockdown whilst the country opens up.”
Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss urged the two leaders to allow transatlantic travel no later than July 4.
He said: “The creation of the Atlantic Taskforce is positive recognition of the importance of the UK-US travel corridor and a first step towards reopening the skies.”
But the lack of a specific time frame for reopening travel meant airlines, businesses and passengers faced a lack of certainty.
British Airways chairman and chief executive Sean Doyle said: “Prime minister Johnson and president Biden can and should take decisive action, just like their predecessors, and we’re pleased to hear they’re prioritising establishing a travel corridor between our two low-risk countries.
“This announcement is a step in the right direction, but we are now at a critical point and need action without delay, including clear criteria and a timeline. Anything other than this could result in tough consequences.”
An Abta spokesperson pointed out the lack of detail in the announcement.
“As we move toward the next review of the traffic-light system, on 28 June, the government needs to make sure that the existing traffic light system is used as intended, and that travel to the some of the most popular foreign holiday destinations is opened up in time for the industry to make the most of the critical summer holiday period,” Abta said.
“Consideration should also be given to capitalising on the success of the UK vaccine rollout by relaxing rules for fully vaccinated individuals when travelling between low-risk areas, as the US, and many other countries, are already doing.”
Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said tweeted: “Timeframe is critical and my initial concerns are on the timeline both governments will be placing on being able to reopen safely.”
John Bevan, dnata Travel Group divisional senior vice president, responded to a tweet by Shapps announcing the UK-US taskforce, saying: “Why bother, you ignore feedback anyway, another tactic to slow reopening travel.”
In other reaction, US Travel Association president and chief executive Roger Dow said that opening a US-UK travel corridor was a “smart, science-based step” to take for the economic recovery of both countries.
“The US and the UK both have among the world’s leading records on vaccinations and declining infections, the UK is our top overseas travel market, and the two governments enjoy a close relationship,” he added.
“With abundant evidence that travel is safe with layered health measures in place – and a clear economic need to reopen international travel – moving to reduce travel restrictions between the two countries is the perfect place to start.
“The travel industry enthusiastically applauds the Biden administration and UK government for being responsive to the calls to advance a bilateral travel corridor, and hopes to see it implemented by early July.
“The unemployment rate in the US travel industry is currently more than double the national average, and seizing opportunities to safely reopen all segments of travel will potentially restore millions of jobs and hundreds of billions in economic activity.”
The UK and US leaders also agreed to work together on security, including cyber threats, to address climate change, fight antimicrobial resistance and combat cyber threats.
They are expected to agree to scale up joint work on genomic sequencing and assessment of Covid-19 variants.
The UK prime minster is known to model himself on Winston Churchill.
Johnson said: “Churchill and Roosevelt faced the question of how to help the world recover following a devastating war. Today we have to reckon with a very different but no less intimidating challenge – how to build back better from the coronavirus pandemic.
“The agreements President Biden and I will make today will form the foundation of a sustainable global recovery.”