U.K. Airports Warn 11th Hour Confusion Threatens Quarantine Plan
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s latest clampdown on air travel was met with alarm by industry executives, who called the restrictions complex and said they fear a worsening struggle for survival.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock outlined details of new restrictions, including a hotel quarantine and multiple Covid-19 tests, coming into force from Feb. 15 in an attempt to prevent dangerous new virus strains entering the country.
But key aspects of the policy’s implementation weren’t spelled out, leaving executives in the travel industry guessing.
Each traveler arriving in England from 33 nations on the government’s “red list” will be forced to pay as much as 1,750 pounds ($2,410) to isolate in a hotel for 10 days. They will also be required to test negative for Covid-19 three times.
More testing “adds a further barrier to viable air travel and deepens the worsening 2021 outlook for our sector,” Karen Dee, chief executive officer of the Airport Operators Association, and Tim Alderslade, who leads Airlines UK, said in a statement. “Airports and airlines are battling to survive with almost zero revenue and a huge cost base, and practically every week a further blow lands.”
The government still hasn’t made it clear who will be responsible for shepherding high-risk passengers through the airport and to the quarantine hotels, people with knowledge of the matter said, asking not to be identified before decisions are finalized. Airports want financial aid if they are expected to do this, and are asking for details on how these passengers will be separated from others as they make their way through the airport, the people said.
The travel industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus and has had to contend with sudden changes to rules as the government attempts to get a handle on the risk posed by new variants of the virus. The U.K. has lagged behind other countries in imposing tighter border restrictions, with countries such as Australia bringing in mandatory quarantine months ago.
In their statement, the airport and airline lobbies called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to provide a road map for a return to international travel with “transparent and risk-based health criteria” for the lifting of restrictions. They also said aviation-specific financial aid is urgently needed.
“U.K. aviation can be the conduit to the government’s Global Britain and leveling-up agendas, but only if we have viable and competitive sector still standing come the end of the pandemic,” they said.
The government has signed contracts with 16 hotels near London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports, and Birmingham in central England, to provide 4,600 rooms so far. More rooms will be booked as needed, Hancock said.
Westminster is in contact with authorities in Scotland and Ireland, and measures will apply to British and Irish residents returning home from virus hot spots. “We must strengthen our defenses yet further,” Hancock said. “People who flout these rules are putting us all at risk.”
Under the plans for tighter border rules:
- All passengers arriving in England will be required by law to take further coronavirus tests on day 2 and day 8 of their quarantine
- Arrivals failing to take tests will face 1,000-pound fines, while those arriving from hot spot countries who breach their hotel quarantine will be fined as much as 10,000 pounds
- Anyone caught lying on the passenger forms and trying to conceal they have been in a country on the red list in the 10 days before arrival will face a prison sentence of as long as 10 years
- Police and border officials will conduct checks to ensure compliance
While the travel industry decried the lack of detail in the policy, opposition politicians and others criticized ministers for taking too long to close border loopholes for travelers.
The new policy will come into force almost three weeks after it was announced and the number of hotel rooms secured so far falls well short of the 28,000 reported to be the government’s target.
British officials have spoken to their Australian and New Zealand counterparts for advice about how to quarantine travelers in hotels. More than 112,000 people in the U.K. have died from coronavirus, compared with 909 in Australia.
Johnson’s government is still resisting a blanket hotel quarantine policy in an effort to minimize disruption to vital supplies and essential travel.
In Parliament, Mark Harper, a Conservative former minister, urged Hancock to spell out when the rules will be lifted. Hancock replied that the rules will be replaced “over time” once the population has been vaccinated.
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