By Simon Calder Travel Correspondent, The Independent
One of the UK’s top airport bosses, has condemned the government’s quarantine strategy as “sluggish, illogical and chaotic”.
Charlie Cornish, chief executive of Manchester Airports Group (MAG), which includes Stansted and East Midlands, made a blistering attack on the government’s failure to bringing a more nuanced policy ahead of government decisions on self-isolation for arriving travellers.
At present passengers from most countries arriving in the UK must go straight home and self-isolate for two weeks.
With arrivals from Spain, France, Croatia and North African nations required to quarantine, passenger numbers over the August bank holiday weekend are forecast to be down about 70 per cent on a year ago.
Airlines and airports are calling for some regions of popular countries to be granted exemption from quarantine if their coronavirus infection rates are low enough.
Mr Cornish said: “The impact of Covid-19 – and quarantine restrictions – on the travel industry is clear for all to see.
“It is evident in the tens of thousands of job losses that have already been announced and the millions of holidays already cancelled.”
On Wednesday, Gatwick airport said 600 staff would lose their jobs as a result of the slump in demand for air travel.
In normal times, Manchester and Stansted airports are respectively the third and fourth busiest in the UK, behind Heathrow and Gatwick.
The MAG chief executive said: “If reports are to be believed, our government was due to debate taking a more realistic and passenger-friendly approach to quarantine decisions on Monday at its Covid committee.
“But this meeting didn’t happen, and we hear it’s now due to happen today. It’s not the first time a critical decision in this area has been put off, with no credible explanation for the delay.
“Indeed, throughout the pandemic there has been no evidence of any recognition from the government of the need to protect the travel industry and enable it to recover from what is undoubtedly the biggest crisis it has ever faced.
“We see no signs that it wants to avoid further jobs losses, or an appreciation of the critical role airports will have in the economic revival of regions across the country as we gingerly emerge from this crippling pandemic.
“But the impact of this decision has been amplified many times over by its sluggish, chaotic and illogical approach to travel restrictions, an area where we have watched other nations move quickly and decisively while our government has remained in its own decision-making lockdown.
“Having initially imposed blanket quarantine rules on all destinations, we eventually saw ‘travel corridors’ agreed with our most important tourism markets, following a period of stubborn procrastination, which is yet another example of this Cabinet’s inability to rise above division, put their heads down and agree a common-sense answer.
“But a few short weeks after the key Spanish travel corridor was established, it was effectively closed-off again, due to soaring infection rates in the northern regions of Catalonia, Aragon and Navarre.
“For those planning a trip, there was a glimmer of hope that the Balearic and Canary Islands could remain restriction-free.
“But that prospect was whipped away quicker than a poolside towel left unattended for too long.
“Catalonia is closer to Chelmsford than it is to Gran Canaria, making this blanket approach not only unnecessary and illogical, but hugely damaging to an already-ailing sector.”
Mr Cornish claimed that the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, accepts that a regionalised approach is needed.
“Meanwhile, we have watched the penny drop with other major nations, such as Germany, which has moved quickly to enable travel to popular resorts in the likes of Spain, while adopting a localised, targeted approach to quarantine that the UK has so far refused to consider,” he said.
“With so little of our summer remaining, so many popular destinations needlessly closed-off, so many jobs at risk and so little confidence our prime minister understands this urgency, you can understand why our industry feels left behind.”
A Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson said: “The government recognises the impact that coronavirus is having on the economy and workers, and has put together an extensive package of financial support to help the aviation sector.”
“Public health remains the UK’s top priority and we are committed to tackling this virus while enabling a sustainable and responsible return to international travel.”
The DfT is expected to update its list of quarantine exemptions on Thursday evening.
At the last review, the transport secretary said that a range of factors were taken into account for assessing exemption status: “Estimated prevalence of Covid-19 in a country; the level and rate of change in the incidence of confirmed positive cases; the extent of testing in a country; the testing regime and test positivity; the extent to which cases can be accounted for by a contained outbreak as opposed to more general transmission in the community; government actions; and other relevant epidemiological information.”
Grant Shapps also warned anyone contemplating an overseas holiday: “Only travel if you are content to unexpectedly 14-day quarantine if required.”
In today’s review, Switzerland is likely to lose its exempt status, while Bulgaria may be added to the low-risk list.
Government sources appear to have leaked to the Telegraph the prospect of the resumption of some free movement between the UK and part of the US.
At present, Americans travelling to Britain must self-isolate for two weeks, while UK and EU citizens are banned from flying to the US by a presidential proclamation – with certain exceptions for figures such as the Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage.
A source told the newspaper: “There are discussions going on at a very senior level around opening up London and New York.
“They are at a very early stage but it is vital to get business going with a major trading partner especially as we near Brexit.”
But a senior aviation source told The Independent: “This is just wishful thinking by someone in the DfT.
“With Donald Trump seeing travel restrictions as an important issue for his support base, no one expects meaningful levels of flying to the US to resume before the presidential election.
Using data from the US Centers for Disease Control, The Independent calculates that, with 1,643 new infection cases in the past week, New York City has a rate per 100,000 of 19.5 – just below the UK government’s threshold of 20, which is near to triggering a quarantine requirement.
The corresponding rate for Florida is 118 cases.
Until 2020, London Heathrow-New York JFK was the most lucrative air route in the world, earning British Airways alone $1bn (£800m) in revenue.
A DfT spokesperson said: “Conversations between governments in other countries on a whole range of issues take place regularly.
“Public health remains the UK’s top priority and we are committed to tackling this virus while enabling a sustainable and responsible return to international travel.
“We keep the data for all countries and territories under constant review, and will not add a country to our travel corridor list unless safe to do so.”