Protesters urge change to Covid rules causing 'absolute devastation' to UK travel industry

Pilots, flight attendants and travel operators gather outside parliament for Travel Day of Action

Explained: England's traffic light system for travel

Pilots, flight attendants and travel operators gathered for the Travel Day of Action protest outside the British Parliament on Wednesday.

They are urging the UK government to save an industry that employs 860,000 in the country from “absolute devastation”.

Hundreds of travel industry workers gathered outside the Palace of Westminster in London calling for a review of current restrictions.

Organisers of the demonstration say the safety rules imposed on tourists are draconian and are strangling the sector at its most vulnerable time, with both the pandemic and Brexit biting deep.

"The whole international travel and tourism industry is coming together to pressure the policymakers to actually do something to help get it up off its knees," said Brian Strutton, general secretary of the pilots' union Balpa. "The restrictions on international travel that the government supports have been absolutely devastating."

Gavin Newlands, the Scottish National Party’s transport spokesman, said the aviation and tourism sector was "approaching a cliff edge”.

"The government needs to make clear its plans to continue financing this key industry," he told The National.

London’s Gatwick Airport, the main hub for holiday airlines, reported a 92 per cent drop in flights from 2019, with Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester each experiencing an 80 per cent drop.

Meanwhile, millions of people in Britain, desperate not to spend a second summer holiday at home are constrained by the government's traffic light system for international travel.

Only 11 destinations appear on the green list of countries from which people arriving in the UK need not quarantine.

People returning from red-list destinations, including the UAE, must stay in a designated hotel at their own expense, while those returning from amber destinations – most countries – must self-isolate for 10 days upon return.

Reports suggest the government may expand the green list when it is reviewed on Thursday but will only add a few destinations, including Malta and Spain's Balearic Islands.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he hoped “the world could open up” but warned other countries were only “catching up” with the UK’s coronavirus vaccination programme.


Asked about the prospect of restrictions being eased, Mr Shapps said: “I’m optimistic that the world is catching up with where we are in our vaccination programme.

“What happens in the UK is, people say ‘well, everyone I know or a lot of people I know are vaccinated’.

“People will say that but of course, as soon as you go abroad you find that’s actually not the case.

“So balancing the opening up while preserving people’s safety and security at home is absolutely at the forefront.

“As a Cabinet, we take collective decisions in which we have decided, I think rightly, to prioritise the health of British people first and foremost."

He said the government provided £7 billion ($9.77bn) of support to the aviation sector alone and £406bn to the whole economy.

“So we’ve not been slow at coming forward for support," he said. "But of course, everybody wants to see as much of the economy opened as possible.

“As transport secretary, for me that means people being able to travel around domestically and internationally, just as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Tourist cross a street in downtown Lisbon on June 18, 2021. - The Portuguese government will limit travel to and from the greater Lisbon area during the weekend following an increase in coronavirus cases in the region. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)
Tourists cross a street in downtown Lisbon, Portugal. 'There’s a huge appetite for people to go abroad,' said Katie Crowe of Battleface, the travel insurance company. AFP

Katie Crowe of travel insurance company Battleface said there was huge appetite for overseas travel. She said a survey showed almost 50 percent of those polled would "consider taking a holiday to Spain, France, Italy and Portugal, so there is an enormous desire for travel to those destinations currently rated amber by the British government”.

Three quarters of people said they would complete a full vaccination programme if this was needed to travel internationally.

Recent analysis by NHS Test and Trace, updated every three weeks, showed no variants of concern were found in travellers returning from any of the 167 amber list countries.

Fewer than one in 200 people tested positive for Covid on their return and only 1.8 per cent of arrivals from red list countries tested positive.

It is this evidence the aviation industry believes should convince the government to release the shackles.

“The government has published no evidence or information at all about how it is classifying countries in different traffic light tiers,” Mr Strutton said. “Even the experts can’t understand why some countries are on the green list and others are not.”

He said some Mediterranean islands, the Canaries and the US were safe for travel and “vital for the UK travel tourism industry” to recover this summer.

“The public is being tormented by this stop-start policy. We just need some sensible answers,” he said.

Fully vaccinated to duck travel restrictions?

The argument for fully immunised people to be allowed to visit countries on the amber travel list without the need to quarantine on return is gaining traction.

Whitehall insiders told The National the current information could lead to the removal of the requirement.

“We are entirely sympathetic to the plight of the travel industry but we have to take the safety-first approach,” a government insider said. “We’re not going to readily ease off on our restrictions because of industry pressure, the stakes are too high.”

But there was a firm hint that the government would consider relaxing quarantine rules when it updates travel restrictions on Thursday.

We've had nowhere near the level of support needed to deal with the devastating impact this crisis has had on people's jobs, livelihoods and businesses

Health Secretary Matt Hancock indicated that  quarantine lifting is being considered. On Tuesday, he said it was a matter the government was "working on".

The wave of pressure is also coming from the Association of British Travel Agents, which backs Wednesday’s Travel Day of Action. Protests were planned in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, as well as in London, to send a strong signal to the government.

“We’ve had nowhere near the level of support needed to deal with the devastating impact this crisis has had on people’s jobs, livelihoods and businesses,” said Luke Petherbridge of travel group Abta.

Meanwhile, holiday group Tui announced it has joined Virgin Atlantic and British Airways' parent company IAG in supporting legal action against the government's coronavirus travel restrictions.

They want more transparency on how the government determines which countries are on the green, amber and red lists.

While the British travel industry has suffered the most in Europe, it is not just the financial toll, Mr Strutton said.

“The figures don’t do justice in explaining the emotional toll this has taken on those working in travel. We’ve got pilots who are almost destitute.”

Mr Newlands said he understood "the frustration and anger because in large part this is self-inflicted”.

“We definitely need to talk about the quarantine possibilities because there's lots of evidence to suggest that that would be a good way forward, especially as our vaccination programme is ahead of the rest of Europe,” he said.

Acutely aware of the costs from a second summer of restrictions, the government is potentially in listening mode. The sight of pilots and flight attendants protesting on Wednesday could well tip the balance.