After the UK government’s first announcement of its “green list” in early May caused airline dismay at the slim pickings on show, the first review of that list on 3 June has surprised many by only increasing industry frustration.
Taken off the ‘green list’ – from where arrivals in the UK are not required to quarantine – was Portugal, the only mass-market tourism destination.
Once cited by IATA as an example of a government doing the right thing around the opening up of international travel, the UK now seems to be on course to lag other European countries, which are gradually moving towards a return of non-essential flights.
So where next for the UK airlines that serve one of the world’s largest outbound tourism markets?
Importantly, it is too early to say summer has been rained off, even if the government’s action has undoubtedly made the next few weeks more difficult for many operators.
Much of the industry frustration comes from the government appearing to overlook data points around case numbers in destinations that, if anything, suggest more countries should have been added to the ‘green list’.
But the truth is that data on case rates alone – which is by definition historical – is not going to be the only guide to government policy during this stage of the pandemic.
And crucially, the UK government is seeking to protect a domestic agenda that includes plans to release most internal Covid-19 restrictions from 21 June.
In early June, just over half of the UK’s adult population had received two jabs of a Covid-19 vaccine, but data released on 3 June suggests that may not be enough to stop the Delta variant from overwhelming health services, if its spread accelerates.
That has made the government particularly keen to reach 21 June without any further complications around imported cases of the virus, with scientists already suggesting the UK may need to delay the relaxation of internal Covid-19 restrictions for several weeks to allow the vaccination programme to advance and dampen the threat of Delta.
In that context, the government also notes that infection rates have been rising in Portugal, and that a new mutation of the Delta variant detected has been detected in the country.
“The situation in Portugal has required swift action to protect the gains made with the vaccine rollout,” says the UK transport ministry.
Nevertheless, airlines are frustrated by this development and the perception that the government has ‘moved the goalposts’ when it comes to categorising destinations under the UK traffic-light system. The option to fly to Portugal had hardly cured their cash-burn issues, but the hope was that it signalled momentum towards something better.
“Boris Johnson’s government is again mismanaging the Covid recovery,” says Ryanair group chief executive Michael O’Leary. “This stop-go-stop approach to short-haul travel in Europe is inexplicable and unjustified when 75% of the UK population has now received a Covid vaccine.
“There is no medical or public health reason for moving Portugal from the Green to the Amber List,” he states.
Jet2 chief executive Steve Heapy adds: “When you apply the government’s own criteria for making decisions about travel, we simply cannot understand why more destinations across Europe, the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands are not allowed to open to UK holidaymakers.
“We are now calling for complete openness and transparency when it comes to the data, so that customers and the industry can really understand what is driving these decisions.”
Heapy also announced that the carrier would delay the restart of most of its services by a week to 1 July.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren meanwhile suggests the UK is isolating itself with such policies.
“When this framework was put together, consumers were promised a waiting list to allow them to plan,” Lundgren states. “Yet the government has torn up its own rule book and ignored the science, throwing peoples’ plans into chaos, with virtually no notice or alternative options for travel from the UK.
“This decision essentially cuts the UK off from the rest of the world.”
And Airlines UK, which represents EasyJet, Jet2 and British Airways, among others, says the decision “just adds to the belief that ministers don’t actually want international travel this summer, and want to cut off the UK from the rest of the world”.
In truth, the UK has never pursued a ‘zero-Covid’ policy and there are no official indications that it wants to stop all international travel in the coming months.
In a year of false starts, however, airlines and the wider travel industry must now wait for the UK government to become more confident that the Delta variant can be controlled before it considers expanding its ‘green list’.
As ever with Covid-19, there are no guarantees, particularly on the timescales involved.
A worst-case scenario would perhaps see most destinations rejecting travellers from the UK anyway, should cases of the Delta variant become widespread in the country.
A better case would see the UK’s successful vaccine rollout bring the variant under control fairly swiftly, with the ‘green list’ revisited sooner rather than later, if destinations are similarly able to contain Delta.
As Ryanair’s O’Leary suggested during a BBC television interview today, there is still a good chance that intra-European travel – including the UK – could be something much more like “normal” by autumn, with momentum starting to build over the coming weeks.