As if anyone thought otherwise, June was effectively cancelled in travel terms last week with the announcement of blanket quarantine requirements from next month.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps’ ray of hope for the summer peak was that "air bridges" could be introduced in agreement with some countries, by-passing the need for returning travellers to spend a fortnight in self-isolation. However, he was non-committal, saying only discussions with other countries were “active”.
The national press seized on his comments on Monday 18 May, forcing Whitehall sources to quickly dampen expectations, saying air bridges were “not agreed government policy”. In Friday’s government update (22 May) interior minister Priti Patel said Britain should not rule out the idea of air bridges with countries that have low infection rates of Covid-19 in the future, but added the concept was “not for today”.
The announcement of a quarantine requirement, to be introduced some 11 weeks after lockdown and reviewed only every three weeks, bought almost universal dismay in travel. Understandably so; if there was ever a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, maybe this is it – between 1 January and 23 March – when lockdown began, 18.1 million people arrived in the UK by air, land and sea. Only 273 were placed in quarantine, all of these from three flights from Wuhan, the source of the outbreak, and from another carrying passengers from the virus-stricken cruise ship Diamond Princess.
Now, countries ahead of the UK in terms of the pandemic are lifting restrictions and inviting tourists; but millions in this country face being placed in isolation if they wish to travel and the air bridge lifeline is mired in confusion. It is only causing more damage to what remains of the summer season.
Abta’s director of industry relations, Susan Deer, believes the government has to explain itself to the travelling public. “It’ll be important to include information on the science or public health reasoning behind the policy and how it interacts with other control measures like proposals from airlines about temperature screening and contact tracing,” she said, adding “it really, really needs to be communicated well” to gain the public’s understanding and confidence.
Even if the public buy into the quarantine proposals, there will be no immediate relief for the industry, most believe, particularly among consumers holding out for news of air bridges.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive, is another calling for clarity: “The change in comment from the government provides confusion for businesses and consumers and dampens the proactive approach the travel industry can undertake,” she said.
“We need, as a sector, for the government to provide clarity on decisions so we can all work together to restore confidence in overseas travel.”
Are air bridges likely?
Aito spokesperson Noel Josephides is adamant there will be no air bridges in the first three weeks of quarantine and that this will throw a shadow over potential sales for the following weeks.
“We need lead-in time to make sure some hotels are open; they are waiting to see what demand is. It’s a chicken and egg situation, the UK is by far Europe’s biggest outbound market, so everyone wants to know what the UK is doing,” he said.
Charter aircraft loads were currently 30-35%, he said, meaning “some hard thinking” would be needed about cancellations.
Josephides criticised confusing “loose talk” around issues like whether or not France is a quarantine-free gateway. Even Conservative MP Damian Green told parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport committee that France “seems to have been on and off the table”. Green added: “I detect a lively debate inside government about what is a practical proposal,” he said.
Assuming holidaymakers are happy with the UK protocol, there remains the question of other countries’ visitor requirements.
Greece, for example, as Josephides explained, is proposing visitors produce a medical certificate issued no longer than 72 hours before arrival. “Let’s say you test positive and can’t go; what does a tour operator do?”
Moreover, when it comes to quarantine negotiations, the UK having such a high coronavirus death toll might be a hard sell.
“That will certainly form part of the thinking from both sides, particularly around air bridges,” said Deer.
The inbound tourism lobby is also unhappy at the government’s proposals, but fortunately, its key markets, the US, France, Italy Spain and Germany are likely to be top of the UK list when it comes to negotiating air bridges.
Inbound tourism faces a £15 billion hit this year and quarantine will only prolong the agony. Bernard Donoghue, director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, points out that London’s ‘big three’ museums attract more visitors than Venice.
He told the DCMS committee: “Ninety per cent of all inbound leisure visitors to the UK stay for less than two weeks, so imposing a 14-day quarantine effectively removes 90% of the inbound market for the foreseeable future.”
Both inbound and outbound industries should, as June approaches, have been gearing up to cater for pent-up demand. Air bridges or not, with quarantine coming, that prospect must now be a lot further off.