As the government presses ahead with its quarantine plans and business warn of closures and job losses, the health secretary has declined to comment on an emerging “air bridge” plan to avoid 14 days of self-isolation.
From 8 June, most arrivals at UK airports, ferry ports and international rail terminals will be required to self-isolate at home, out of direct contact with family and friends, for two weeks.
To limit the damage to the travel industry, the Department for Transport (DfT) is lobbying for bilateral deals with “low-risk” nations that would remove the need to quarantine.
At the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing, George Parker of the Financial Times asked Matt Hancock for an example of any European country that would be interested in the idea of an air bridge with the UK.
The health secretary responded: “This air bridge idea has been floated and I know there’s been a lot of discussion about its and I know that some countries have been mentioned in the media.
“But that is a piece of work that’s been done by the Home Office and the DfT and I am not going to tread on the toes of my colleagues no matter how tempting it is.”
Mr Hancock was also asked if his advice remained as he had given on 12 May, when he predicted people would not be taking overseas holidays this year.
“I was actually asked this, I think, late last week, and I said I was more optimistic than previously
“But clearly the number one priority is keeping the public safe and that is the overriding principle. It has been throughout this and hence many of the changes that we brought in.”
As the health secretary was speaking, airlines and travel businesses were being briefed on the open-ended quarantine arrangements.
The Home Office plans have been widely criticised for a blanket approach to quarantine, rather than targeting flights from individual countries, and for a wide range of loopholes that allow travellers to swerve the rules.
The travel industry is pressing strongly for the proposals to be dropped, arguing that it will destroy the inbound and outbound tourism markets.
In a survey of travel business leaders, 94 per cent said they expect their summer bookings to disappear if quarantine plans are introduced.
The survey comprised 124 CEOs, owners and leaders of businesses in the travel and hospitality industry, who between them account for £5bn in revenue. They responded on Sunday and Monday.
Twenty eight per cent said they may cease trading altogether, while others said they could lay off up to 60 per cent of staff.
Seven out of eight of the respondents said the new “test and trace” system makes quarantine unnecessary.
Despite the rearguard action by the travel industry, which is also involving dozens of Tory MPs, ministers appear be set to go ahead with the quarantine plan.
George Morgan-Grenville, chief executive of the tour operator Red Savannah, said: “The government is choosing to ignore the devastation it will cause to companies, to employment and to the lives of all those whose jobs will be lost.
“The quarantine measures are a blunt weapon which will bring only economic disaster.”
Despite the opposition, ministers believe the measures are popular with the public and are pressing ahead with them.
At the Downing Street briefing, Professor John Newton, who is responsible for the UK’s testing programme said: “If people are coming into the country then they already have to be treated as an unknown, and therefore there’s a quarantine.
“At the moment I think caution has won the day and SAGE’s advice is that quarantine is appropriate.”
British Airways is offering passengers booked to fly to the UK from 8 June onwards to move their flights earlier and avoid the obligation to quarantine.