As the government prepares to reveal the long-awaited details of its quarantine policy for travellers arriving in the UK, leading Conservative MPs have called for the introduction of “air bridges”.
Mandatory 14-day self-isolation for inbound passengers is set to start in June. As there is no fixed end date, some holidaymakers and travel firms fear that “summer is essentially cancelled” – as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has indicated.
But airlines and holiday companies were desperately hoping to start up operations at scale in July, to try to resurrect something from the wreckage of one of Britain’s leading industries.
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The “air bridge” concept would limit some of the damage to travel firms and allow prospective holidaymakers to make something of the summer.
Define an “air bridge”?
In this context, it is not the moveable corridor between the departure lounge in the airport terminal and the aircraft, but a bilateral travel link between two countries. It would allow the free flow of travellers and provide “quarantine immunity”.
The idea was floated in the Commons by Huw Merriman, the Tory MP who chairs the Transport Select Committee.
He proposed a scheme in which travellers entering the UK from countries where the infection rate (the R-number) is below one would not be subject to quarantine.
“This would boost confidence in aviation travel and target safety where it is most needed,” he suggested.
Why is this being discussed now?
The government’s plan to impose quarantine on all arriving travellers to the UK has been widely leaked for weeks.
On Sunday 10 May the prime minister announced that travellers arriving in the UK by air will be required to self-isolate for two weeks, in a bid to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Later that evening, No 10 said that quarantine would not apply to travellers arriving from France due to a special agreement between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron – an early version of an “air bridge”, dubbed an entente touristique.
The following day the government clarified the planned quarantine, saying that sea and rail arrivals would be affected too.
By the end of the week, No 10 said arrivals from France would not get quarantine immunity – the exemption was mainly aimed at truck drivers.
The Cabinet is believed to be split over the plan for two weeks of mandatory self-isolation, with Michael Gove and Matt Hancock strongly in favour but transport secretary Grant Shapps against because of the shutdown of travel that it would trigger.
Air bridge agreements with leading nations could present a somewhat messy compromise to solve the political deadlock.
The transport secretary said: “We should indeed consider further improvements—for example, air bridges enabling people from other countries that have achieved lower levels of coronavirus infection to come to the country.”
Who would team up with the UK?
Almost anyone, hinted the deputy chief medical officer. While some have suggested Britain is the “sick man of Europe” because of the high level of infection and, tragically, deaths, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam told the Downing Street briefing on 18 May: “We are becoming an area of low incidence of Covid-19.”
The government believes the UK could sign deals with other “areas of low incidence” to allow travellers to move freely without the need to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.
Spain, France and Italy have all be mentioned in government briefings. Portugal is another obvious candidate. The Greek tourism minister has said that a quarantine-free agreement could allow British travellers to visit without having to self-isolate for 14 days.
Is an air bridge the same as a “travel bubble”?
No. While there is no internationally agreed definition of that term, “travel bubble” has been used to describe a group of countries who allow free movement between themselves but put up barriers to everyone else.
Examples include the new “Baltic bubble” involving Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and the proposed Australia-New Zealand combination – which may be extended to some South Pacific islands.
In contrast, there is no suggestion that, say, Greece, would allow travel from the UK but not from, say, Germany. Indeed German holidaymakers may be welcomed more warmly than the British.
The broadcaster Thanasis Gavos told The Independent: “I would be lying if I didn’t say there were still some uncertainty, especially for the UK visitors.
“There is huge concern about how the government here in the UK have been dealing with the epidemic. So we might possibly see Britain as being one of the last that will be permitted in Greece.”
What does all this mean for the traveller?
Who knows? Until the quarantine rules are revealed, travel firms are not able to tell holidaymakers with trips booked whether they will be going away this summer.
Legally, the presumption is currently that trips will go ahead. But the government briefings make that increasingly unlikely.
The transport secretary told the Commons on Monday that the starting date for the 14-day self-isolation had been moved from May to June, saying: “Final details of the quarantine scheme will be released soon and come in early next month.”
Mr Shapps said it would “initially be a blanket situation”.
As the Foreign Office has warned against non-essential travel abroad until further notice, all of this is academic.
No one would rationally book a summer trip until the government publishes its plans, which is causing yet more despair for the hard-pressed UK travel industry.
The former tour operator and travel guide writer, Neil Taylor, said: “One would hope that, with the EU likely to open up in mid-June, we could coordinate with that, which would save the mass market for the summer and all sorts of other travel arrangements too.”