Pressure is mounting on Boris Johnson to liberalise travel restrictions, with the CBI warning that the international travel sector is in “the last chance saloon” and risks losing its lucrative summer season altogether unless rules are relaxed in the coming days.
And the prime minister was facing calls from his own Conservative backbenchers for the demand of a costly PCR check on arrival in the UK – branded a “£100-a ticket tax on flights” by the industry – to be downgraded to the cheaper lateral flow test.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps is set to unveil a simplification of restrictions in the latest three-weekly review of the government’s traffic light system, which is expected on Thursday – though his Department for Transport refused to confirm the date, saying only it would come “by the end of this week”.
The announcement comes with warnings from the sector of tens of thousands of job losses if rules are not relaxed this week in time to give holiday-makers a final opportunity for a summer getaway.
The prime minister has already indicated that he has scrapped plans for an “amber watchlist” category of countries which could be switched without notice to the restrictive “red list”, after airlines complained that it would deter all but the least risk-averse travellers from flying.
And speculation is mounting that he will effectively ditch the “amber-plus” rating currently occupied only by France, relieving UK visitors from the requirement to self-isolate for 10 days on return by moving it to the “amber” category alongside most other popular European destinations.
It comes as Mr Johnson has decided not to travel abroad for his summer holidays, according toThe Telegraph.
Hopes were riding high that as many as 17 countries, including Germany, Poland and Canada, could be moved onto the quarantine-free green list, while falling cases in amber-listed Spain and Greece fuelled expectations that they will avoid a move up to harsher restrictions.
But Whitehall sources were playing down suggestions that the PCR test – required within two days of arrival from green and amber-list countries and after two and eight days for amber-plus and red nations – could be replaced by lateral flow for fully-vaccinated adults.
In a “New Settlement for Living with the Virus”, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI urged ministers to take a “truly risk-based approach” to international travel rules, adding more countries to the green list “as soon as possible”.
Exemptions from self-isolation should be extended to cover all travellers with UK-approved vaccines, rather than just those who received vaccines through the NHS, said the business organisation.
And they said that Covid documentation checks should be conducted pre-flight, or by recruiting university students to check passengers’ smartphone apps before they reach border control, in order to cut queues in airports.
CBI policy director John Foster said: “The international travel sector is in the last-chance saloon for its the summer season. Restrictions must be relaxed if beleaguered businesses are to salvage any opportunity to trade their way towards recovery this year.
“The UK’s successful vaccine rollout, coupled with lessons learned throughout the pandemic, offer genuine opportunity for more travel to resume safely. The UK urgently needs to widen the list of those able to avoid self-isolation on their return, to include individuals who have received UK-approved vaccines, rather than just those who received NHS vaccines.
“Rebuilding passenger confidence will be key. Establishing simple, consistent rules and communicating them clearly is essential. The decision to abandon publication of an amber watchlist is a sensible step towards that goal, but the government must get back to consulting industry first, thus creating better policy and enabling improved implementation.
“In addition to lifting restrictions, government should prioritise the creation of an efficient pre-travel system of assessing passengers’ Covid-status to prevent congestion at airports.
“Meanwhile, further economic support for the sector will also be needed until passenger numbers recover. This will be vital to protect jobs and skills, and ensure the UK’s travel sector remains competitive with global peers.”
Conservative MP Henry Smith, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the future of aviation, said it was time for a “lighter touch for green list countries”, with double-vaccinated passengers able to take lateral flow tests and only subjected to PCR confirmation if they test positive.
Mr Smith, whose Crawley constituency is home to many Gatwick Airport workers, told The Independent: “A system graded depending on risk and recognising the protection offered by vaccination is what we all hope for and what the public deserve.
“I hope that the dropping of the amber watchlist bodes well for a more pragmatic approach. I am more optimistic now than I was, but the reality is that we are already into August and there is not much of the summer travel season left. Easing restrictions now will hopefully save some jobs in the aviation industry which are under threat, particularly with furlough ending in September.”