Sir Graham Brady is Chairman of the 1922 Committee and is MP for Altrincham and Sale West.
Just as the Government’s focus starts to shift from handling the acute phase of the Covid-19 crisis towards what needs to be done to ensure that all those furloughed millions have jobs to return to, the quarantine policy threatens to do enormous damage.
It would deter the vast majority of people from flying to and from the United Kingdom, leaving airlines unable to fly near-empty aircraft economically; it would place hundreds of thousands of jobs in jeopardy and would cut Global Britain off from global markets.
For what? I wouldn’t have a problem with quarantine if it was attached to a real, identified risk. Passengers flying from a coronavirus hotspot could be required to quarantine and to take the necessary tests, but a blanket quarantine that includes the countries that have very low rates of infection would make no sense at all.
When the Government sets out its plans, it should at the same time either announce a number of countries that are considered safe: which could be included in ‘air bridges’ with exemption from the new measures, or at least set out the criteria on which such exemptions will be based.
Failure to give sufficient clarity about how and where restriction-free flights can take place will push many parts of an aviation sector that has already been hit harder than most into some very rapid decisions: job cuts and routes that won’t reopen this year.
Announcing those crucial details a week or two after the announcement would be too late for many, because the airlines need a significant lead time to get their planes and staff in the right places in order to reopen routes. If what looked like a well-informed leak to the Guardian yesterday morning proves to be accurate, this damage would be caused by something that might not even be recognisable as quarantine. The freedom to use public transport and to go out for your grocery shopping might suggest that no-one really thinks that high-risk individuals are involved here.
There are other ways of ensuring safety. Dubai and Austria are amongst those countries which are basing their strategy of reopening air travel on testing passengers. This option should be explored rapidly for Britain. In the UK, the Aviation Health Expert Panel has produced comprehensive recommendations for the safe resumption of air travel too.
So if quarantine is introduced, it should be as narrowly defined as possible. Ideally there should be a short list of destinations that are deemed to be high risk, rather than a short list of ‘air bridge’ exemptions. The criteria for exemption should be clearly announced, and any list of exempt destinations should be reviewed frequently against them.
After a difficult, often tragic few months, many people will feel that a summer break is vital therapy for them, young people who have been locked-down with Mum and Dad might need a break for their mental health; couples who have been apart will want to make up lost time and emergency workers who have been hard at work throughout the crisis might like to take a break too.
But this is about so much more than summer holidays. It is about a million jobs directly employed in aviation. It is about the businesses that depend on the ‘belly hold’ freight of passenger aircraft to carry their high value exports. It is about the network of international connections that can bring us the medicines that we need.
At a time when there is a danger that the UK might have ended lockdown and got back to work later than many of our competitors, it is, crucially, about making sure that our businesses are out there winning contracts, not sitting in quarantine while others corner the world’s markets.
As Britain goes back to work, moving on from being urged to ‘work from home if possible’ towards an assumption that people should go to work as long as their workplace is safe to go to, it would be a sad irony if we chose to shut down the international connectivity on which so much of our prosperity depends. This is exactly the time when we need to be telling the world that Britain is open for business – not a time for putting unnecessary obstacles in the way.