UK government confusion over ‘air bridges’ as plan said to be merely ‘under consideration’

The government’s attempts to limit the damage caused by its controversial quarantine policy appear to be in some disarray.

After the health secretary said he had worked through the weekend on so-called “air bridges,” the Department for Transport (DfT) insisted that the no-quarantine concept is merely “an option under consideration, not established policy”.

Since 8 June, almost all arrivals at UK airports, ferry ports and international rail terminals have been required to go straight home and self-isolate for two weeks. The new rules apply to returning holidaymakers as well as foreign visitors.

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The percieved delayed response to the coronavirus pandemic has been criticised as counter-productive by some scientists, while the quarantine policy has been widely criticised by airlines and holiday companies for stifling summer bookings just as popular holiday destinations begin to unlock.

Tui, the UK’s biggest travel firm, has cancelled almost all its departures in July. The tour operator will initially run a skeleton network of holidays from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester to eight Greek and Spanish islands.

As British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair seek a judicial review of the new law, some ministers are keen to neutralise the policy with a system of “air bridges” or “travel corridors” – reciprocal no-quarantine deals signed with key destination countries.

But with only a week before many European nations lift restrictions on international arrivals, there is consternation in the travel industry over the lack of certainty – and the indefinite Foreign Office advice against all but essential overseas travel.

At the Downing Street briefing on Monday, the health secretary responded to a question about air bridges by saying: “I’ve been working on it over the weekend.”

Matt Hancock continued: “We have a formal review date of the quarantine policy at the end of this month on 29 June. We’ll make sure that in good time for that we publish what we plan to do next.

“We’re working on it very intensively.”

Many travel industry figures took Mr Hancock’s words as an indication that a list of countries will be published later this week.

But a DfT spokesperson said: “International travel corridors remain an option under consideration by the UK government, not established policy.

“Conversations take place regularly with governments around the world on a whole range of issues and we will not be providing any further details at this stage.”

Labour’s former culture secretary and MP for Exeter, Ben Bradshaw, said: “The government’s blanket quarantine is killing our travel and tourism industry, and costing thousands of UK jobs daily.

“With the rest of Europe enjoying open borders and quarantine-free travel, Johnson must scrap this nonsense policy now and replace it with a targeted approach on the few countries around the world with higher Covid rates than us”.

Paul Charles, spokesman for the Quash Quarantine pressure group, said: “We need urgent clarity on the current triple lock on the travel sector – corridors, FCO travel advice and quarantine.

“They are preventing the sector getting going again and threatening the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Tui appears to be certain that Spain and Greece will be on any list of countries “immune” to quarantine, and that the Foreign Office advice will be eased to allow foreign holidays to commence from early July.

France, Portugal and Italy are also likely to be on the initial air bridge list.

But there is also concern in Whitehall that EU nations left out of the first round with a similarly low prevalence of infection may challenge “discriminatory” agreements.

Although the UK has left the EU, under the terms of the transition agreement it is still subject to European laws until the end of 2020.

A European Commission spokesman told the Daily Telegraph: “There can be no discrimination. This means that regions in similar health situations around Europe should benefit from the same treatment.

“We would therefore expect that if the UK decides to lift its restrictions for movement to and from another member state, or a specific area through air bridges, this should apply to all parts of the [European] Union in a similar epidemiological situation.”

The Foreign Office is also concerned about causing diplomatic offence to non-EU countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco if they are omitted from the list. Other nations such as Switzerland and Iceland, with significant business travel, may also be aggrieved if they are left out in the cold.

The DfT spokesperson said: “Our focus is implementing measures which help tackle the spread of the disease and protect public health. The government is continuing to consider the travel corridors concept as a possible way of relaxing border measures and increasing travel once it is safe to do so.

“We are monitoring the global travel situation closely and keeping our advice against all non-essential travel under continuous review.”

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