UK quarantine plan poses fresh setback for aviation sector

Airlines and airports have warned the government that its plans to introduce a 14-day quarantine for people arriving in the UK would effectively kill any hopes of a resumption in international travel.

Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, is expected to set out the plan on Saturday afternoon at the daily Downing Street press conference, as part of a strategy for “phase II” of the coronavirus crisis.

Prime minister Boris Johnson 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.

Mr Shapps is expected to say that arrivals in the UK, including British citizens, will have to notify authorities of the address where they intend to self-isolate for 14 days.

Police would have the power to check that they were observing quarantine restrictions.

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.

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.

Unlike many countries, Britain has kept its borders open during the coronavirus crisis. Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said this week that this had allowed the disease to “seed” itself around the country as people returned from Covid-19 hotspots.

The UK is an outlier even in Europe with many EU member states imposing a variety of border restrictions from mid-March. Quarantine, or self-isolation, requirements of 14 days have been in place around the world for weeks, if not longer, including in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Chile, China, Greece, Ireland and South Korea.

The Irish government said there was close contact between the UK and Ireland on Covid-19.

“Ireland and the UK will each, in their separate ways, treat UK and Irish passengers the same. So anyone coming to Ireland from Great Britain, whether Irish or British, is treated the same way,” a spokesman for the Dublin government said.

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”.

He added: “We will be asking for assurances that this decision has been led by the science and that government has a credible exit plan, with weekly reviews to ensure the restrictions are working and still required.”

The airline industry is looking to benefit from an extension of the government’s furlough scheme — it is expected to be tapered beyond the end of June — along with a holiday from air passenger duty and other charges.

The Airport Operators Association, the UK trade body for airports, on Friday warned that the measure would not only have a devastating impact on the UK 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.” 

But after rejecting border restrictions at the start of the outbreak, 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

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