Looking ahead to the ‘Easter Monday declaration’ on international travel

Simon CalderFri, 2 April 2021, 3:21 pm

Another age: Gatwick Airport South Terminal, Easter 2019 (Simon Calder)
Another age: Gatwick Airport South Terminal, Easter 2019 (Simon Calder)

In a normal year, Easter Monday would be a peak day for airlines and airports across the UK – with almost 1 million passengers coming and going.

In 2021, with non-essential overseas travel illegal (and subject to a £5,000 penalty in England), the actual number will be a tiny fraction of that. Yet the aviation industry and prospective passengers have marked 5 April as the date for the “Easter Monday declaration”.

That is the day the prime minister has promised an update on the prospects for international travel this year.

We already know that flying overseas for non-essential purposes will not be possible until 17 May at the earliest. But what else should Boris Johnson say? And what will he actually say?

Airports, airlines and passengers will be looking for clarity about flights that might be feasible: the criteria necessary for you to fly from A to B and back again without experiencing undue hassle and expense.

Decisions should depend, as the government is fond of saying, on data, not dates. Another weary phrase: “A risk-based approach.” When I hear this I get slightly irritated by the implication that decisions should ever be taken on any other basis.

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But looking back at some of the government’s less-rational moves on aviation – such as allowing flights from the UAE and Qatar to carry cargo but not passengers – perhaps spelling it out is no bad thing.

What travellers want to see is the framework (another tired term) for flying from 17 May onwards. The idea of “traffic lights” to rate countries according to the risk they present has been widely rumoured, but we need to know how the categories will be defined, and how they will operate.

  • Green, with a very light touch approach, should apply to countries where infection rates are very low or at least declining steadily; a vaccination programme is working well; and there are no significant “variants of concern”. Many leisure and business airline passengers would be deterred by anything more demanding than a quick pre-flight test before departure to the UK. Testing on arrival at scale would be an extremely difficult protocol to administer: at Heathrow, for example, how do the authorities ensure that everyone is tested between landing and passport control? And if someone tests positive on arrival, what is the process for dealing with them?
  • Amber could involve tests on departure and after arrival, as well as a spell of self isolation. It would be mainly the preserve of travellers who are desperate to see loved ones or make urgent business trips, and will therefore tolerate onerous conditions.
  • Red is already defined by the government as 35 countries deemed particularly high risk – with hotel quarantine and repeated testing obligatory. I am not entirely convinced by hotel quarantine; properly managed, self-isolation at home should be sufficient. But as things stand the number of arrivals from red list countries will remain very low.

What the prime minister should say is to specify the criteria for each in data that the nation and the wider world can access and assess.

The past tragic year has been, for travellers, an unfolding muddle of uncertainty. While no one knows how the data will evolve, at least you and I should be able to make an informed decision about the wisdom of planning a trip.

Airports and airlines could organise resources in accordance with the level of flying they predict will be possible.

I fear that instead of such certainty we may once again get little but bluster on the need to protect the vaccination roll-out, plus non-committal noises about wanting to open up aviation when it is safe to do so.

An abundance of caution, you (or Boris Johnson), might say. But it is not a cost-free option, as the millions who depend on air travel for a living, or a lifestyle, will testify. So I hope I am wrong.

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