What is the transatlantic travel taskforce, and what might it achieve?

·6 min read
Cross purposes: British Airways and American Airlines aircraft at Miami airport in Florida before the coronavirus pandemic  (Simon Calder)
Cross purposes: British Airways and American Airlines aircraft at Miami airport in Florida before the coronavirus pandemic (Simon Calder)

“We’re pleased to announce a joint UK/US Taskforce to help facilitate the reopening of transatlantic travel” – so tweeted the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, a week after tightening restrictions on British travellers.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, transatlantic links between the two countries constituted the most valuable intercontinental travel market in the world.

The trade minister, Greg Hands, told Sky News: “It is very important that we get that transatlantic relationship reset up in terms of travel between the two countries.

“It is such an important relationship for travellers, for families, for tourists, but also for investors.

“Every day in this country a million people in this country go to work for US companies. In the United States, more than a million people go to work for British companies.”

So what will happen – and when? This is what we know so far.

What’s the problem?

A tangle of restrictions that make transatlantic travel nigh impossible for British visitors to the US, and onerous quarantine rules for those arriving in the UK from America.

Donald Trump imposed a ban on direct transatlantic travel from the UK to the US for non-Americans in mid-March 2020 by presidential proclamation, which was lifted when he left office but immediately reimposed by his successor, Joe Biden.

It prohibits the direct arrival into the US of anyone who has been in the UK or Ireland in the past 14 days, unless they are American citizens or have residential status. That is a similar restriction to some of the UK’s “red list” rules.

Some British people who have work in the US or are desperate to reach loved ones spend two weeks in Mexico to “launder” their record before continuing north.

The Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to the US “based on the current assessment of Covid-19 risks,” meaning that standard travel insurance is invalidated.

In the opposite direction, the US is on the UK’s “amber list”, with mandatory self-isolation as well as multiple tests required.

Besides separating many people from their families and partners, the current regime has very severe impacts on tourism on both sides of the Atlantic and on business travel. The two big UK long-haul airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, are losing a fortune with every day the effective travel ban continues.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, representing leading British carriers, said: “Every day that we don’t have an air bridge with the US costs us £32m in lost economic activity.”

So what is happening?

A new travel taskforce is being set up. It will be overseen in the UK by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, and will be involve senior officials from the Department for Transport and its US counterpart, the Department of Transportation.

They will look at ways that the travel restrictions could be eased without significantly increasing the risk to either country of transmitting the virus and endangering public health.

Mr Hands said on Sky News: “There will be a working group set up and we are looking as a matter of priority.” But beyond that details are sketchy.

What measures will be considered?

The governments have not yet issued any details, but it is clear that the UK is looking for the presidential proclamation to be revoked. It may be that the US government will allow this to happen at the same time as restrictions on European Union visitors are eased.

Extensive rules will still be applied, though it may be that proof of vaccination will help swerve some testing requirements.

Even if the US opens up, there will still be the big problem of quarantine on return to the UK. For a significant resumption in travel to happen, the US would need to be moved to the UK “green list”. It appears to meet many of the criteria, particularly with falling infection rates and a successful vaccination programme.

But America has some of the biggest international aviation hubs in the world, particularly in Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York, and Mr Shapps is known to be concerned about risks from travellers from other countries.

In addition, the UK has given no indication that proof of vaccination will be considered as an alternative to testing or quarantine rules.

When might it take effect?

One reason the travel industry has given such a lukewarm reception to the announcement is that no timescale is attached.

Forty-eight hours before flying to Britain, Joe Biden tweeted: “Folks, the Delta variant – a highly infectious Covid-19 strain – is spreading rapidly among young people between 12 and 20 years old in the UK.” That does not suggest that the president is desperate to open up the Atlantic skies.

US carriers are less affected by the coronavirus pandemic because the domestic aviation market is improving rapidly, and they are not as exposed to UK closure as their British counterparts.

With just three weeks to the start of the July and August summer peak, airlines and holiday companies fear the season could be written off again.

Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have postponed the relaunch of flights to the key holiday destination of Orlando in central Florida until July.

What is the travel industry saying?

Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive, Shai Weiss, said: “The absence of a definitive time frame falls short of providing airlines, businesses and consumers with much-needed certainty.”

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “Time really is of the essence for businesses, the travel industry and families who have been separated for months on end.

“This new taskforce has the opportunity to act without delay and with urgency, given the successful vaccine deployment across both nations.”

Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “Jobs won’t be saved, nor livelihoods protected, until we are given a certainty on dates for the resumption of international travel.”

Luis Gallego, chief executive of the British Airways parent company IAG, called for greater haste. He said: “It doesn’t make any sense to have these markets closed. We need to be brave and take decisions.”

Haven’t we been here before?

Yes. The first Global Travel Taskforce was chaired by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, and the health secretary, Matt Hancock. Last autumn it produced the “test to release” option that (for England at least) can end quarantine early with an extra test on day five onwards.

But other recommendations have fallen by the wayside, including “tour bubbles” to allow low-risk holidays, exemptions for short business visits and a proposal for a “safe transit” system – allowing people to change planes at aviation hubs without triggering onerous quarantine restrictions.

The second Global Travel Taskforce, aimed at “restarting international travel in a safe and sustainable way”, worked through the spring of 2021.

A key proposal was the “green watchlist” aimed at avoiding a repeat of the chaos seen in 2020 due to sudden changes in a country’s quarantine status. But the idea was immediately ditched by ministers at the first review of the “traffic light” system a week on 3 June.

The only significant country on the green list, Portugal, was moved to amber with only four days’ notice, triggering chaotic scenes as holidaymaker cut short their trips to get home.

Clive Wratten said of the new initiative: “This is the latest in a long line of Travel Taskforces which so far have only wreaked further devastation on our industry.”

The opposition, meanwhile, wants almost all international travel to be closed down. The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said: “The UK government must add all countries on the amber list to the red list.” That would include the US.

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