A path to restriction-free travel is key to the full revival of the UK’s ailing aviation sector, according to Manchester Airports Group.

The call came as the UK’s largest airport group revealed figures showing passenger numbers fell 90% across the first 12 months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

MAG wants to see greater co-operation between the UK government and its overseas counterparts to share information about the emergence of new Covid-19 variants of concern and eliminate the need for travellers to take expensive PCR tests on their return.

MAG – the owner of Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands airports – called for the Global Travel Task Force traffic light framework to be “urgently improved” to include a fourth, restriction-free category capitalising on the success of the UK’s vaccination rollout.

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Doing so would remove “significant personal cost to passengers and inject much-needed confidence into the UK aviation sector ahead of what will be a critical summer season”.

The government currently proposes that all passengers – even those returning from the lowest risk ‘green’ destinations – will have to take a PCR test, so it can gather data that will help with genomic sequencing.

MAG said this could be avoided if governments worked together on sequencing and sharing data on variants.

MAG’s 12-month rolling passenger numbers stood at nearly 62 million in March 2019, compared to just over six million in March 2021 – down by 90%.

Chief executive Charlie Cornish said: “After more than a year of almost total shutdown – and with so many jobs and so much economic value at stake – it’s really important we get people moving again once it is safe to do so.

“We now need government to confirm 17th May start date as soon as possible, along with the list of countries that fall into each ‘traffic light’ category.”

Under the traffic light system, those returning from green list countries will have to take a test pre-departure and another PCR test within two days of getting back.

Those returning from amber list countries are also required to self-isolate for tne days and take an extra PCR test, while those coming back from red list countries have to book a government-approved hotel quarantine package.

Cornish added: “But the price tag attached to testing will hold back the recovery and hinder the sector’s ability to power the UK’s economic revival as a whole.”

“The requirement to complete a PCR test on return from even the safest countries adds potentially unnecessary cost and the government’s attention must now turn to finding smarter and more affordable ways to manage the risk posed by new variants of concern.

“This should be achieved by forging ever-closer partnerships with key markets and developing transparent ways of sharing data into these variants so they can be effectively contained.

“Where we can trust data from other countries, forcing people to spend money on expensive PCR tests, to obtain the very same information, would represent a colossal waste of everyone’s money.

“Covid-19 is a global problem and requires a co-ordinated international response, not just in bringing the pandemic under control, but in developing solutions to enable a return to restriction-free travel between countries where there is a lower level of risk.

“The government should also be looking to the UK’s world-leading vaccination programme as a means to remove further barriers to travel to as many destinations as possible.

“Only by setting ourselves on a course back to restriction-free travel now will the aviation industry find itself on a road to full recovery, unlocking the wider-ranging economic benefits that brings.”

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