Pressure Grows On UK Government Over COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

Gatwick Airport
Credit: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

The UK government is facing growing pressure from pilots and airlines over its handling of COVID-19 travel restrictions, as the travel industry held a “day of action” to call for more action and more transparency in efforts to reopen the sector.  

Joining the June 23 day of action, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) called on the government to allow international travel to return safely and in a risk-managed way by implementing the Global Travel Taskforce’s transparent traffic-light system. This would expand the “green list” of destinations in line with evidence and making restrictions more proportionate while keeping a strong “red list” to guard against variants, BALPA said.  

A ban on international leisure travel was lifted May 17, with a traffic light system of travel restrictions to categorize countries put in place. The green list has been widely criticized for including many countries that are either not known as tourist destinations or remain closed to foreign visitors.   

“The government has to decide if this summer it will make or break the UK travel industry,” Acting General Secretary Brian Strutton said. “With a robust and open approach to the data we should be able to use the science to open up safe travel routes with the U.S. and many European destinations, just as other European countries have done.” 

Strutton added that extending a furlough scheme and providing direct support to airlines and airports would save jobs and companies.   

BALPA said its analysis of data from European air traffic agency Eurocontrol showed that the number of flights into and out of the UK has collapsed by three-quarters (73%) in the latest official data, compared to 2019, with Gatwick and Manchester airports the worst affected in Europe and Heathrow and Stansted close behind.    

The day of action came as more operators added their voices to that of Manchester Airport Group (MAG), the operator of East Midlands, Stansted and Manchester Airports, which said earlier in June it was launching legal action against the UK government over the travel restrictions situation. Ryanair had already said it was an interested party in the case, and other industry players have now also spoken out.  

“IAG intends to join as an interested party rather than a claimant,” said a spokesperson for International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, Level and Vueling.  

“We share Manchester Airport Group’s frustration with the lack of clarity and certainty coming from the UK government,” said a spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic, which is listed alongside Ryanair and IAG as an interested party. “Failure to provide clear and transparent guidance on the methodology and data government is basing their decisions on undermines its traffic light framework and damages consumer and business confidence. It shouldn’t be a state secret.” 

The Virgin spokesperson called for the addition of the U.S. to the UK’s green list and for U.S. President Joe Biden to repeal the 212F proclamation for UK travelers.  

“The UK government’s overly cautious approach does not follow the data and is preventing businesses, families and consumers from booking with confidence and restricting £23 million [$32 million] in economic value each day with the U.S., our largest trading partner,” the spokesperson said.  

TUI UK & Ireland MD Andrew Flintham called for transparency over the methodology and data used to compile the green, amber and red lists. “There was a lack of transparency from Government around the lack of clear reasoning given for moving Portugal from the green list to the amber list and its decision not to move any amber list countries to the green list,” Flintham said. 

Travelers were caught in the breach when the UK abruptly moved Portugal from green to amber earlier in June, leaving many scrambling to return home before quarantine requirements came into force.   

“That is why TUI has officially become an interested party in the Manchester Airport Group’s legal action against the government, alongside Ryanair, IAG and Virgin Atlantic,” Flintham added.


Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.