Airlines and airports have warned the British government that its plans to introduce a 14-day quarantine for people arriving in the UK would effectively kill any hopes of a resumption of international travel.
Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, said on Saturday that it was time to reconsider Britain’s much-criticised policy to leave its borders open throughout most of the coronavirus crisis.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street press briefing, he said that “as we begin to get things under control and we now have capacity in testing it clearly makes sense now to look at what happens at the borders”.
Mr Shapps said that any announcement of a change in strategy — including the imposition of quarantine arrangements for people arriving in Britain — would be made by Boris Johnson in a televised address on Sunday night.
But he said: “We can’t have a situation where everyone else is being asked to stay at home but others can come into the country.” He also noted that the number of people coming into the UK was currently “very, very small”.
The prime minister will announce a minor lifting of lockdown measures in an address to the nation on Sunday evening, but the quid pro quo for easing restrictions in the UK will be tighter controls at the border.
Downing Street declined to comment, but airlines expect to be briefed on details of the proposals on Sunday. “They are about to deliver a death blow to the aviation industry,” said an executive at one of the big UK airports.
Mr Shapps said the government was ready to have “bespoke conversations” with aviation companies requiring help but said that “we have to develop policy in the national interest”.
The government imposed restrictions on people travelling from China, South Korea, northern Italy and Iran at the start of the outbreak in January and February, but — unlike most other European countries — Britain’s borders have been largely left open.
The quarantine plans have raised concerns within the already crisis-hit travel sector.
Gatwick airport called for the urgent introduction of measures to support the industry including a sector-specific extension to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme; emergency reform of take off and landing slots; business rate relief for airports; and relief on regulatory and statutory fees.
“Given the invaluable contribution aviation has made to the UK economy over the years, with last year alone contributing at least £22bn to the UK economy along with 230,000 jobs, the time has now come for government to support the industry in its hour of need,” a spokesman said.
On Thursday, Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways’ parent IAG, said it would not restart flying if the UK imposed a 14-day quarantine on passengers arriving in the country, as it would put people off wanting to come to the country.
The UK plans for quarantine come just as other countries and airlines are tentatively looking at resuming flights in the coming months. Most of the world’s passenger aircraft have been grounded as lockdowns swept across the world in March.
Rafael Schvartzman, regional vice-president for Europe at Iata, warned it would have a profound negative impact on air transport and the British economy.
“Other countries around the world are starting to consider how their restrictions could be phased out to help restart the global economy. Imposing a 14-day quarantine now sends a signal that the UK is moving in the opposite direction,” he said.
In the UK, where a few airlines maintained minimal services during the lockdown, Wizz Air restarted some flights from London Luton airport earlier this month, while both Ryanair and IAG have signalled they could resume some flying from July.
Tim Alderslade, of Airlines UK, said the government would have to introduce financial support measures if it went ahead with the quarantine measures “so that we still have a UK aviation sector once the quarantine period is lifted”.
The Airport Operators Association, the UK trade body for airports, on Friday warned that the measures would not only have a devastating impact on the aviation industry, but also on the UK economy.
“Aviation is an enabler for many other industries, such as manufacturers, tourism and the hospitality industry. If the government believe quarantine is medically necessary, then it should be applied on a selective basis following the science,” said Karen Dee, chief executive of AOA.
She added that airports “cannot survive a further protracted period without passengers that would be the result of quarantine measures”.
The government has decided to make the quarantine period a key part of its plans to end the lockdown in the UK as cases are driven down to a manageable level.
Mr Johnson on Sunday will confirm a modest easing of restrictions, including allowing people to take unlimited exercise and the reopening of garden centres. But most restrictions will stay in place until at least the end of May.
Additional reporting by Mark Odell and Arthur Beesley