A furious row has broken out between the bosses of Scotland’s biggest airports and Nicola Sturgeon’s government over testing airline passengers.
Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh airport, said he is “extremely frustrated” that the Holyrood government has dismissed their proposals for easing restrictions on arriving travellers.
Mr Dewar and Derek Provan, chief executive of AGS Airports, which includes Aberdeen and Glasgow, claim they spent five months working with some of the government’s senior clinicians on alternatives to long quarantine before their plans for a pilot scheme were flatly rejected without an explanation.
The government says it has always been “open and constructive” in its work with Scotland’s airports.
After breaking passenger records in 2019, Scotland’s airports have experienced a disastrous year in terms of both flights operated and passenger numbers.
Edinburgh airport, previously the sixth-busiest in the UK, is handling only a handful of flights – many of them domestic links.
Glasgow airport has more flights, as it is the main hub for Loganair’s services to the islands.
Aberdeen has flights on British Airways and Loganair, but again a fraction of normal levels.
Flights that are operating are far emptier than usual. Ryanair this morning revealed that in the final three months of 2020 its flights had an average of 57 empty seats, compared with seven or eight a year earlier.
Scotland has not adopted England’s “Test to Release” scheme that allows people who test negative for the virus after five days to end self-isolation.
Before anyone boards a flight to Scotland – or anywhere else in the UK – from any country except Ireland, they must produce evidence of a negative test for coronavirus taken in the past 72 hours. On arrival, they must go home and self-isolate for 10 days.
The aim is to try to minimise the risk of the virus being spread by importation.
From one of the so-called “red list” countries, including Portugal, South Africa and the UAE, other members of their household must join them in self-isolation. And from some time later this month, arrivals from these high-risk countries will be obliged to go into “hotel quarantine”.
Scotland’s biggest airports fear the country could be left behind by having a more onerous policy on arrivals than England – and many other nations – if it does not modify its general quarantine policy.
In December, Mr Provan called for “urgent progress from the Scottish government on the introduction of testing which needs to go hand-in-hand with the vaccination roll-out”.
By that stage his airports, as well as Edinburgh, had been in discussions with the Scottish government about how to open up aviation safely for several months.
The airports want a system that is less of a deterrent to holiday, business and family travel. They proposed a pre-departure test, which is designed to screen out as many carriers of coronavirus as possible before they even board a flight, a further test upon arrival, and a test on day five after arrival.
A testing regime that did not involve quarantine would be a UK first, and could mean that Scotland is well ahead when meaningful travel restarts.
But according to Mr Dewar, after working closely with government for five months, answering questions and using their statistics and modelling, they were told a pilot project wouldn’t go ahead – and they would not be allowed to see what advice was put forward.
He told The Independent: “If we knew the issues then we could work to satisfy or correct them but that requires a level of trust we just aren’t being shown.”
The airports submitted a Freedom of Information request but the application was rejected on the grounds it would be too expensive to fulfil.
A Scottish government spokesperson said : “We are doing everything we can with the limited resources available to us to support the travel sector through the current crisis.”
They told The Independent the government has been “as open and constructive as possible” and added: “We are acutely aware of the impact COVID-19 is having on the aviation industry, and will continue to work with both AGS Airport and Edinburgh Airport to address these challenges.”
At present all leisure travel within and from the UK is illegal.
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