16 October 2020

Getting Britain flying again must now be a top priority

By Stephen Hammond MP

A global pandemic – combining the threat of infection with government-imposed restrictions all over the world – was always going to hit air travel hard. Millions of people have either chosen not to fly or been prevented from doing so. The implications for are devastating, not just for the industry itself but for the wider economy too. Getting people flying again must now be a top priority for the Government, for everyone who depends on it – and all of us depend on it.

Aviation is a major UK industry and a big employer in its own right, but there are many other sectors that depend on it. Tourism is the most obvious example, with millions of visitors flying into the UK every year and thousands of businesses reliant on their custom. But it’s not just about tourists; financial services, life sciences, advanced manufacturing, the creative industries, as well as the conference and events industry, all need aviation for the global connections that make us a world leader.

Before the pandemic, our aviation network – the largest in Europe – was already critical to our global competitiveness. Now, British businesses need to start getting out into the world again, making new partnerships and relationships, doing deals, selling their talents, their products and the UK. While videoconferencing has unleashed new ways of working remotely, it is still no substitute for face-to-face interaction, which we know is so critical to developing long-lasting business relationships.

Airlines and airports have made enormous efforts to ensure that passengers are safe, with compulsory mask wearing, social distancing measures and enhanced cleaning. But some of the most important disincentives to air travel are beyond their control. Perhaps the biggest is the quarantine regime. For as long as quarantine restrictions are in place, people will be reluctant to fly to and from the UK.

Quarantine is there for a reason – we need to be sure that people are not bringing the virus into the country with them. But there is a solution: testing people for Covid-19 as they arrive so that we, and they, can have confidence that they are not infected. A number of testing options are available, some already being used by other countries and others being trialled. Even if testing cannot remove quarantine restrictions entirely, making a significant reduction in the 14-day period will make a huge difference.

Travellers may well be happy to fly, but put off by the prospect of isolating for 14 days on arrival. It makes many kinds of leisure and business travel simply impractical, however much people may want to go. I’m not at all surprised by new polling for London City Airport which shows that the current quarantine arrangements are the biggest barrier to air travel for business leaders. Yet the same polling shows that two thirds of business leaders, including more than four out of five leaders of larger businesses, see air travel as important to their future success. The introduction of a testing regime would boost passenger confidence, with nearly three quarters of business leaders saying they would be more likely to fly with testing in place.

The Government’s launch of a Global Travel Taskforce to consider how best to support the recovery of international air travel, including a possible testing regime for arrivals, is a step in the right direction – but it is only a small step. Its target of reporting by early November means that the aviation industry, and those who want to fly, will have to wait for at least another month for action. So the taskforce needs to recognise the urgency of its mission, especially of getting business travel up and running again, and to set out a full roadmap for how to make this happen. For British businesses who want to get back out into the world, testing could be the single biggest measure to enable them to do so.

Britain’s economic recovery can only be led by business. Nobody understands that better than Conservatives, and so it was encouraging to hear the Chancellor promise in his recent conference speech that “we will make it easier for those with the ambition and appetite to take risks and be bold, to do what they do best and create jobs and growth”. That means doing everything we can to take down the barriers stopping people doing business with each other. Finding a way to end the quarantine regime with a proper testing system should be at the top of the list.

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Stephen Hammond is the MP for Wimbledon and Chair of the APPG on Business Travel.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.