Airline industry blasts ‘missed opportunity’ as France and Germany benefit from limited relaxation of travel rules

Spain, Italy and Greece stay amber, but no respite on expensive tests for travellers

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 04 August 2021 22:01
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<p>Travel industry bosses say the summer season has been a failure</p>

Travel industry bosses say the summer season has been a failure

Boris Johnson’s latest review of travel restrictions has been blasted as a “missed opportunity” by the aviation industry, after ministers cleared the way for thousands of British families to visit France quarantine-free this summer but moved only a handful of countries onto the lowest risk category.

And airlines lamented the decision not to ease requirements for expensive PCR coronavirus tests for arrivals in the UK, which has been condemned as a “£100-a-head tax on flights” by the industry.

Ministers were accused of “flip-flopping” on France after reversing their decision last month – branded “nonsensical” by one Conservative MP – to place the whole country in its own “amber-plus” category of heightened restrictions because of a spike in cases of the Beta variant of Covid-19 in faraway island territories La Reunion and Mayotte.

From 4am on Sunday, the whole of mainland France moves onto the amber list, requiring self-isolation at home on return only for unvaccinated adults, while the Indian Ocean islands of La Reunion and Mayotte join the highest-risk red category, with all arrivals going into hotel quarantine.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps moved Germany and six other European countries onto the quarantine-free green list. And he gave a reprieve to popular holiday destinations Spain, Italy and Greece, leaving them on the amber list despite fears they could move onto red, which would have forced a scramble to return home by Brits currently soaking up the Mediterranean sun.

However holiday-makers returning from Spain were urged to take a pre-flight PCR test “as a precaution against the increased prevalence of the virus and variants in the country”, and the government stressed it would be keeping a close eye on the development of the pandemic in the country.

Following an internal battle in cabinet, a proposed “amber watchlist” of countries which could have been moved onto red status with little or no notice – and which was feared to be likely to include Spain – was ditched.

Alongside Germany and Austria, little-visited European nations Slovenia, Slovakia, Latvia, Romania and Norway were moved onto the green list. And a decline in coronavirus cases allowed India, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – including Dubai and Abu Dhabi – to be switched from red to amber.

Mexico and Georgia head in the opposite direction, joining the red list alongside the likes of Brazil, Pakistan and South Africa as areas posing a significant public health threat because of high infection rates and the presence of known high-risk variants.

And in a mark of ministers’ determination to deter all but the most essential movement from red areas, the cost of the mandatory 10-day hotel quarantine for arrivals will increase from £1,750 to £2,285 from 12 August.

Announcing the changes, Mr Shapps said: “We are committed to opening up international travel safely, taking advantage of the gains we’ve made through our successful vaccination programme, helping connect families, friends and businesses around the world.

“While we must continue to be cautious, today’s changes reopen a range of different holiday destinations across the globe, which is good news for both the sector and travelling public.”

But the chief executive of industry body Airlines UK, Tim Alderslade, said: “This is another missed opportunity and with the summer season nearing its conclusion means international travel has not had anything like the reopening it was hoping for. This puts us at odds with our European neighbours and clearly does not represent the liberation of aviation that the prime minister has spoken of.

“Alongside the continuation of expensive testing and a much smaller than hoped for expansion of the green list – which makes less sense by the day given where we are with the vaccination programme – this is yet another blow to the sector and families desperate to get away, and means the UK continues to open up far slower than the rest of Europe.”

Airlines had been lobbying ministers for fully-vaccinated arrivals from green and red list countries to be allowed to take a low-cost lateral flow antigen test on arrival, rather than the pricey PCR tests which can add more than the cost of a flight to the bill for a family holiday.

Conservative MP Henry Smith, who chairs parliament’s all-party group on the future of aviation, welcomed the expanded green list and the UAE’s move to amber, though he said he would have liked to see “more ambitious” relaxations.

“The fact that France is now a regular amber and we have got rid of this nonsense of Reunion and Mayotte affecting the whole of metropolitan France is a sensible move and very welcome,” said Mr Smith, whose Crawley constituency is home to many Gatwick airport workers.

But he added: “I do feel there is a case to be made that those arriving from green list countries should only require a rapid-turnaround antigen test, which could be backed up with PCR in the unlikely event that it is positive. That would reduce cost and make things more simple and pragmatic for people returning.”

Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said the extension of the green list is “a positive step forward” but warned that the UK remains “a long way off a full and meaningful restart of international travel”.

She called on ministers to provide “a much-needed tailored package of financial support to help our aviation industry through the challenging months ahead”.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said the government had “plunged the summer plans of thousands of families into chaos with their flip-flopping over France”.

He demanded the release of clear infection data backing up decisions, after foreign secretary Dominic Raab said that France’s amber-plus designation was driven by cases 6,000 miles away in La Reunion.

“While we welcome efforts to safely open international travel, ministers must explain to passengers and the industry how they’ve reached these changes with clear information on the direction of travel of infections in each country,” said Mr McMahon.

“Ministers need to get a grip and set out a proper strategy, provide full data and progress work with global partners on international vaccine passports so travellers and the industry can have clarity instead of reckless U-turns and confusion.”

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