Travel industry leaders have urged the addition of more countries to the green list for quarantine-free travel and a change in testing requirements for the remainder of the summer peak season.
The plea from the bosses of airlines including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, easyJet and Ryanair, and operators Tui and Jet2 came as chancellor Rishi Sunak was widely reported over the weekend to have pressed for a relaxation of Covid travel restrictions.
His intervention came ahead of Thursday’s updating of the traffic light list for international travel amid fears that a new ‘amber watchlist’ category could be created, which would see countries switched to red with little notice, requiring ten days’ hotel quarantine on return to the UK.
Sunak wrote to prime minister Boris Johnson warning that the current curbs were harming the economy and tourism.
And Huw Merriman, chairman of the transport select committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that the potential new ‘amber watchlist’ category would “be viewed as a massive red flag” that would “likely” cause bookings to those countries to “collapse”.
He added: “In my view, we don’t need any more uncertainty, complexity, or anxiety for passengers, or this beleaguered sector. It just needs clarity. I would urge the government not to do anything with it.”
Fully vaccinated travellers no longer need to quarantine on their return from amber-list countries, while France has already been placed in an ‘amber plus’ category, requiring home quarantine for those returning.
The UK is also understood to be poised to lift restrictions on travellers who land in hubs in red list countries.
That change would mean that tourists travelling through hubs such as Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Doha, Dubai and Istanbul would not have to quarantine, even though countries such as Qatar, Turkey and the UAE remain on the red list.
The industry chiefs argue in a letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps that “the world has changed” since the inception of the traffic light system and ‘green status’ should increasingly become a default, “given the changing risk equation, and mirroring the approach to domestic restrictions.”
They add: “On this basis there is no reason why, and it is essential, that much of Europe including the key volume markets, the US, Caribbean and other major markets, cannot turn green next week in time for the remainder of the summer peak.
“If the testing regime remains in place, with its cost and administrative burden, it will have a huge impact on UK aviation – acting effectively as around a £100 tax on flights, on average.
“It is unclear whether the government has understood this risk. We have seen no evidence that this regime is necessary for fully vaccinated travellers or those from green countries, or that effective, cheaper rapid tests cannot be used from higher risk destinations.
“We are today seeing no real recovery in customer confidence. The UK aviation recovery is far behind countries in Europe.
“Travel bookings in Germany are now at 60% of 2019 levels. France is at 48%. Here in the UK, we are booking just 16% of trips compared to pre-pandemic. This is not sustainable.
Despite tentative steps forward, time is fast running out to put the UK’s aviation, travel and tourism industries back on track for a sustainable recovery to protect the millions of jobs they support.
“We cannot afford to stand still over this vital summer period, and urge you to act.”
The letter, signed by chief executives of the UK’s leading airlines and operators, welcomed last week’s announcement that fully vaccinated travellers from the EU and US will be exempt from quarantine requirements.
“Having fallen far behind our competitors, this is a positive step that will help close that gap, reunite families, and get businesses moving again,” they added.
“However, we must now build on this momentum by adding more countries to the green list next week and by reducing the still onerous and increasingly disproportionate burden of testing on travellers.
“We are increasingly concerned that the UK is not on a path to a sustainable recovery of aviation, due to the continued restrictions that are being imposed on international travel.”
“In the UK our ‘vaccine wall’ means over 70% of people are now double jabbed and nearly 90% have had a single dose. Case numbers are dropping. Vaccination patterns are similar in many of our key markets not least in the EU and US and latest data from Canada shows vaccines to be highly effective against all variants, including Beta.
“PHE’s [Public Health England’s] own data shows both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines offer extremely high protection against hospitalisations from Delta, 75% after one dose and 94% protection after two.”