Cool your jets! Airlines warned travel push will bring Covid variants into UK

Virologists urge caution over Britain's traffic-light system for travel

A British Airways plane taxis at Heathrow Airport, London, with more aircraft due in the sky in the coming weeks. Reuters
A British Airways plane taxis at Heathrow Airport, London, with more aircraft due in the sky in the coming weeks. Reuters

The airline industry’s eagerness to restart foreign travel brings a risk of importing new variants of Covid-19 into the UK, two virologists said in a British Medical Journal article.

Ministers unveiled a traffic-light system for overseas travel from England on Friday, with the ban on foreign holidays due to be lifted on Monday.

The travel industry is calling for the green list of approved travel destinations to be expanded as it seeks to recover from the disastrous economic effects of the pandemic.

But virologists Prof Jangu Banatvala and Prof Deenan Pillay urged caution over the plans and warned that the enthusiasm for travel needs to be checked because it “flies in the face” of the need to control the virus.

Until vaccinations are complete, it would be “remiss to abandon all attempts to limit new variants being imported into the UK", they said.

Under the traffic-light system, people travelling to England from red-list countries – including those with links to Covid-19 variants such as Brazil, India and South Africa – will have to enter quarantine in government-approved hotels.

Travellers returning from countries on the amber list, which covers most of the world, must be isolated for 10 days at home and take Covid-19 tests on the second and eighth days.

Only the handful of countries on the green list, such as Portugal, can be visited without facing quarantine on returning to England.

The two scientists said the “entire door-to-door travel process” must be evaluated to reduce the risk of virus spread through air travel.

They warned of the danger of new variants arising in countries with high infection rates, in addition to the mutations that already exist.

Travel industry seeks quicker end to restrictions

The airline industry, in contrast, is calling for faster progress in lifting travel restrictions.

London’s Heathrow Airport said on Tuesday that the list was overly cautious and should be expanded to include the US.

“The government’s green list is very welcome but they need to expand it massively in the next few weeks,” Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye said.

The British Airline Pilots' Association, a trade union, said after the government announcement on Friday that Britain’s successful vaccine programme “should have meant a much longer green list”.

“This excess of caution from the government is extremely disappointing for everyone who works in the travel sector and the millions of people who are desperate to jet away on holiday or business,” general secretary Brian Strutton said.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps acknowledged that the green list was modest but said he expected it to grow over time.

The green, amber and red lists will be updated every three weeks, Mr Shapps said.

The report authors acknowledged the success of Britain’s vaccination programme, which has given at least one dose to nearly 36 million people.

But they warned that “mathematical modelling scenarios predict potential for a further UK surge of infections later this year”.

Prof Banatvala, at King’s College London, and Prof Pillay, of University College London, said that climate change should also curtail the airline industry’s enthusiasm.

“We must consider the urgent and serious global public health threat of climate change,” they said.

“We should reduce the amount of air travel not only because of Covid-19, but also because of the detrimental impact that this has on our climate.”

More on travel

Travel must not be ‘mothballed’: WHO backs England’s traffic light system

Scotland signs up to traffic light system to allow quarantine-free travel

Hotel quarantine: What do you need to do if travelling from a red list country?

Updated: May 13, 2021 10:28 AM


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