BBGA Promotes Test-And-Travel Regime Despite Home Office Snub

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A new item has been added to the already lengthy list of challenges facing the UK’s business aviation sector as it struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic: effective communication with government.

As a group of commercial airlines prepares legal action in an attempt to overturn quarantine restrictions that went into effect on June 8, the British Business and General Aviation Association (BBGA) has complained of a snub from the Home Office, the government department responsible for the quarantine. 

   On June 4, the BBGA’s CEO, Marc Bailey, wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel outlining proposals for a workaround that would enable the association’s members to continue flying people into the UK. The plans were previously briefed to ministers in the Department for Transport (DfT) and had gained support from the aviation minister, Kelly Tolhurst. They included testing passengers before and after flights, and stressed the ability of the sector to better segregate and track the smaller number of passengers than would be the case on commercial flights. 

   The BBGA received a reply dated June 16, from a clerk in the Home Office’s complaints department, which did not address the Association’s proposals. In a release published last week, Bailey described this as “an extremely disappointing outcome.” He added that the response was indicative of “a systematic neglect to listen to the private sector when it offers innovative solutions during the national crisis that will help save lives, retain jobs and benefit the economy.” 

   “At working level we’ve always had a very good relationship [with the Home Office],” says Brian Humphries, a BBGA board member and former head of both IBAC and EBAA. “It was really out of courtesy that we thought we’d better send a note to them, as we were working with the aviation minister [in DfT].”

   The Home Office told The Weekly of Business Aviation that Bailey’s letter had been passed to the correspondence team of the Border Force—the command within the Home Office that operates frontline customs and border controls—and that a further response would be forthcoming. It is unclear whether this will be received before the first review of the quarantine regulations, which is due to take place next week.

   Referencing reports in UK newspapers citing unnamed government sources that indicate the June 29 review is likely to see the opening up of quarantine-free travel between the UK and specified other nations, Humphries argues that the reluctance to engage directly with the sector is making it more difficult than should be necessary for operators to plan for eventual relaxation of the restrictions. He points out that the BBGA’s proposal, which involves widespread use of new, inexpensive and quick-turnaround virus testing, was intended as a trial which, if successful, could help inform a similar process being applied to commercial airline operations. 

   “We have a methodology that might be adaptable on a wider scale for civil aviation as a whole, and we’d like to give it a trial,” he says. “We can do it on a small scale, and even if it goes terribly wrong, with business aviation it’s not a catastrophe. Either the passengers don’t get through, and that’s a small number, or if one [infected passenger] does creep through the net, again we’re not talking about hundreds.”

   The initial batch of quarantine-free corridors are unlikely to be of much help to the business aviation sector. According to a June 23 report in The Guardian newspaper, the countries being prioritized are Mediterranean nations popular with British vacationers, though arrangements with Germany and Austria are also reportedly under discussion. A corridor with the U.S. is not being considered at this time. 

   Humphries points out that the quarantine is a “blunt instrument,” and quarantine-free travel corridors would appear to mirror that by potentially allowing passengers into the UK who were unknowingly carrying the virus. The BBGA’s proposal—involving testing before embarkation, on arrival, or both—appears to provide a greater level of assurance that infected people will be identified and steps taken to mitigate their impact on the UK population, while at the same time opening up opportunities for travel more broadly. The Association remains optimistic that it will eventually receive serious government consideration. 

   “We’re prepared to fund it and do it as a trial, at a couple of locations, maybe, and see how it works,” Humphries says. “We might find it doesn’t work: but let’s give it a go.” 

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.