The government’s "overly-cautious" plan to restart international travel later this month risks squandering the UK’s "vaccine dividend", aviation leaders have warned.
Together, they call on the UK government to follow Europe’s lead and allow vaccinated Brits returning from “green list”, those adjudged to pose a similar or lower Covid risk to that here in the UK, to side-step inbound testing requirements when travel resumes.
“Instead of taking advantage of the success of the vaccine programme, the government risks closing the UK off from the rest of the world,” said the chief executives of Heathrow, British Airways, easyJet, Jet2.com and Jet2holidays, and Manchester Airports Group in a wide-ranging piece written for The Telegraph on Thursday (6 May).
They call on government to do more to cut the price of testing, and to be more bold in the countries to which it permits quarantine-free travel from the outset as the UK’s vaccination programme continues at pace and those in other countries, particularly mainland Europe, gain momentum.
A limited resumption of international travel is expected from 17 May, governed by a new risk-based traffic light system setting out the testing and quarantine rules Brits will have to abide by when they come home.
The government is preparing to set out how it proposes to categorise destinations by traffic light tier, with “green”, “amber” and “red” lists expected in the coming days after committing to an “early May” timetable for publication.
Arrivals from green list destinations will not have to quarantine upon their return, but they will have to take a pre-departure test and a PCR test by the end of the second day of their return.
However, Heathrow’s John Holland-Kaye, BA’s Sean Doyle, easyJet’s Johan Lundgren, Jet2’s Steve Heapy and MAG’s Charlie Cornish said the PCR test requirement would prove a "huge barrier to travel for most people" owing to cost, despite assurances from the government testing would be affordable.
PCR tests have dropped to as low as £45pp through certain commercial tie-ins and concessions, but typically cost anywhere up to £100-£150 depending on how quickly they can be processed.
“We want to be able to support a safe reopening, but if we are not prepared to accept any risk, travel will never restart and we will not be able to support travel and tourism businesses devastated by the pandemic,” wrote the five aviation chiefs.
Their intervention comes after transport secretary Grant Shapps on Wednesday (5 May) chaired a virtual meeting of his G7 counterparts to discuss and identify “common goals and principles to help develop globally recognised travel standards” for a broader resumption of international travel.
This, said the Department for Transport, includes best practice for sharing scientific data and coordination on “universally recognised travel certificates”.
“If we’re to safely and sustainably restart international travel on a global scale, we need a robust, accessible and coordinated approach,” said Shapps, adding the meeting also sought to identify shared goals, challenges and progress to date.
Shapps also outlined the UK government’s plan to restart international travel, as set out by the Global Travel Taskforce. He said as part of this, the UK government would seek to play a "leading role" in development of international standards around digital travel certification.
“Work continues across the UK government to prioritise a solution to enable passengers to prove their Covid-19 status for vaccines for outbound travel to another country,” said the DfT.
However, the aviation leaders’ letter brands the government’s current approach “illogical”, particularly with respect to requiring vaccinated travellers to get tested on their return, and potentially quarantine too.
Meanwhile, on testing, they said despite having levers at its disposal it could pull to ease the cost burden of testing, the government had not yet “made good” on its promise to help cut prices. “More work must be done urgently, with removing the burden on VAT a good place to start,” they said.
Additionally, they warned that if the green list was too limited in its scope, a 17 May restart would be “in name only”.
“Make no mistake, permitting quarantine-free travel to only a handful of countries or tiny islands and few, if any, of the UK main overseas markets would be a restart in name only,” they wrote.
“Given the improving health picture, availability of rapid tests and the role of vaccines, the scope for safely designating a country ’green’ is much higher, and we believe that the number of countries on the list can and should be high at restart.”