Britain’s Slow Return to Travel at Risk in Europe’s Covid Surge

British officials are drawing up plans for the tentative return of international travel, allowing families to book holidays and offering a desperately needed lifeline to the aviation industry.

But the resurgence of the coronavirus in Europe is forcing Boris Johnson’s government to consider whether to push back the reopening of overseas travel beyond the proposed start date of May 17, people familiar with the matter said.

The prime minister is due to set out the blueprint on April 5. However, officials from 10 government departments and agencies are still working on the plan because the issues are so thorny, the people said.

Airlines are lobbying for flights to resume in time for them to cash in on a substantial portion of the summer season, which contributes the bulk of earnings at leisure carriers such as Ryanair Holdings Plc and EasyJet Plc and tour operators like TUI AG. After a washout in 2020, new virus strains and a chaotic vaccine rollout in the European Union have already dashed hopes for a robust start to this year’s warmer months.

Strict Limits

With France headed into another nationwide lockdown and infections high in Italy and Germany, one option is to bring in a new system from May 17 but strictly limit travel to those countries with the lowest virus rates.

Some in government are pushing for the current ban on foreign travel to continue beyond May. Other officials fear the worsening impact on employment in the tourism and travel sectors, which have been among the hardest hit in lockdown.

Henry Smith, a member of Parliament in Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, said unemployment was almost 9% in his electoral district, which contains London’s Gatwick Airport, compared to a national average of about 5%.

“If we were to see a further delay to international travel, that would kill off the industry for this year,” Smith said in an interview. “It would be catastrophic for aviation. The sector needs certainty on dates, you can’t turn aviation on and off like a light switch.”

Traffic Lights

Under the proposed system being worked on by officials, countries will be coded by levels of risk in a so-called traffic light. Nations with the worst virus situation would be put on the red list and hit with travel bans, while those with the fewest cases would be coded green and open for flights.

The government’s global travel task force is led by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and includes ministers and officials from other departments, such as Health, which is said to be far more cautious on a timetable for reopening travel.

On Thursday, Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford said he hopes Johnson will push back the May 17 date that the government has set as the earliest that international travel can potentially resume.

“I’ve long argued that it is over-optimistic, that it doesn’t reflect the risk of re-importing coronavirus from other parts of the world where there are new variants in circulation,” Drakeford told ITV’s GMB program. France provides evidence of “how close to this country some of those risks are,” Drakeford said.

Heathrow Airport Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye said he is optimistic about international travel allowing summer vacations to many countries by July.

He has pitched a four-color traffic-light system that would include two medium-risk levels, allowing for more people to travel based on Covid tests and proof of vaccination.

“I think we’ll get a direction of travel on Monday, we won’t get a definitive list of countries you can go to, but I think we’ll get a risk--based approach laid out,” Holland-Kaye said in an interview with Times Radio. “Then I think from May 17 we will have countries opening up -- the first travel corridors established without quarantine, so that people can meet friends, go and do business.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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