The government is poised to drop blanket quarantine restrictions from the end of June, with travel due to open up to Europe as the Foreign Office relaxes its indefinite advice against travel.
But the Home Office refused to retreat on imposing 14-day self-isolation requirements on most arrivals for three weeks from June 8, confirming the regulations to Parliament on June 3.
Home secretary Priti Patel defended the quarantine measures against a travel industry backlash, warning: “We will all suffer if we get this wrong”.
Patel conceded it would mean “challenges” for the industry but insisted: “It is crucial that we introduce these measures now. Let’s not throw away our progress in tackling this deadly virus. We owe it to the thousands who have died.
“The government will review these and other measures, looking at global infection rates, the measures in place around the world, and the latest scientific advances to consider further options such as international travel corridors.
Patel indicated the government continues to look at international travel corridors to and from countries with low transmission rates.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “These measures will be reviewed every few weeks, and we are working with the transport industry to see how we can introduce agreements with other countries when safe to do so.”
The Home Office said: “Agreement would need to be made with individual countries before these measures take effect and the UK would seek assurances that any safe corridors met the needs of both countries.”
‘Air bridges’ or travel corridors are set to be introduced from the first quarantine review date on June 29, with destinations prioritised according to their Covid-19 ‘risk picture’.
Portugal’s foreign minister Augusto Santos Silva told the BBC that an air bridge agreement between the UK and Portugal could be in place by the end of June.
But David Hunter, professor of epidemiology at Oxford University, told The Guardian: “Air bridges between countries with similar Covid risks make sense, if it’s in the interests of both countries. When it’s asymmetric, it’s not obvious how that would work.”
He added: “If you went on vacation to a country thought to be low-risk, but while you’re there, there’s a massive outbreak, would you now be handled differently? You probably should be. If you could book a vacation two months in advance, and things change, what are the rules on insurance and refunds?
“If the countries agree and the rules are clear and the contingencies are clear, then at least people know what they could be in for, whereas if it’s all vague then it’s a bigger risk.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) and aviation representatives have been working on proposals for almost a month, with the quarantine announcement on May 22 confirming the government is considering “agreements between countries removing the need for quarantine”.
An aviation industry source said: “We’re working with the DfT and are very close to finalising common health standards. Then we can open up based on three things: the other country is low-risk; there are measures in place to limit infection spread; and health measures in place at both ends of the journey.”
The standards will follow EU Aviation Safety Agency guidelines already released and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards issued on Monday.
These recommend physical distancing “to the extent feasible”, face masks, passenger health declarations, health screening and contact tracing, as well as sanitation and disinfection measures.
Dale Keller, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK, said: “The ICAO guidelines will form the backbone.”
He added: “The pressure from the sector is clear, but we don’t expect any change between June 8 and June 29.”
The industry source agreed: “The quarantine will go ahead on June 8. There are arguments within government, but they’re not about to change position. The industry position is that blanket quarantine should end on June 29. That would slot us in with the rest of Europe.”
However, industry leaders want the restart confirmed ahead of that date. A source said: “Airlines need the government to flag it earlier. It needs to say ‘We’ll use the first review to loosen restrictions’ or there is a fear it will roll over for three weeks and airlines will prioritise other markets.”
Opening travel corridors will be linked to updated Foreign Office advice, removing blanket advice against travel. The source insisted: “Air bridges can’t happen without the Foreign Office being happy. The key is the medical provisions being confirmed, and that is close.”
A list of 45 countries that UK airlines would like prioritised, published this week, includes North Africa, North America and the Caribbean. However, travel’s restart will be confined to “neighbours” initially. A source suggested: “The US will have to wait.”
Cruise is unlikely to come back before late autumn, with P&O Cruises this week extending its cancelled sailings from the end of July to mid‑October.
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