Could 'air bridges' save summer holidays for Brits?

19 May 2020, 12:11

The summer holidays could potentially be salvaged if the UK agrees to air bridges with other countries
Air bridges could save summer holidays following coronavirus pandemic. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Holiday makers itching to get away for their summer beach trips after weeks of lockdown have been given fresh hope by so-called "air bridges" - but what are they? And does this mean we can go on holiday?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced on Monday that the UK government was considering relaxing the 14-day quarantine rule for some passengers arriving into the UK, which is set to start in June.

He told MPs in the House of Commons that "air bridges" could be created for specific countries with a low coronavirus infection rate, instead of creating a blanket rule for travel to and from everywhere.

Mr Shapps added that they should only be brought in once initial measures have been introduced.

However, on 12 May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "It is unlikely that big, lavish international holidays are going to be possible for this summer."

So what are holiday air bridges? And can they help salvage summer holidays?

What are air bridges?

An air bridge is a bilaterally agreed link between two countries that would allow people to travel freely and effectively grant them "quarantine immunity".

For example, if the UK was to establish an air bridge with New Zealand, a country that has managed to keep its coronavirus outbreak under control, it would allow people to travel freely between the two countries without needing to quarantine upon arrival.

Therefore, one idea floated by Conservative MP Huw Merriman is to not quarantine travellers entering the UK from a country whose R-rate (reinfection rate) is smaller than one.

“This would boost confidence in aviation travel and target safety where it is most needed,” he suggested.

However, an air bridge requires agreement on both sides and with the UK's outbreak comfortably one of the worst in Europe, having previously been referred to as "the sick man of Europe", it could prove to be difficult getting other countries to agree to an air bridge.

The coronavirus pandemic has left many beaches empty up until recently
The coronavirus pandemic has left many beaches empty up until recently. Picture: PA

Which countries could the UK have an air bridge with?

The deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, suggested almost anyone could have an air bridge with the UK because the country is "becoming an area of low-incidence of Covid-19."

He therefore hopes that Britain could sign deals with other countries with "low incidence" levels - other countries mentioned in government briefings include Spain, France and Italy, while Portugal would also likely be considered and Greece's tourism minister has said an agreement could be reached with the UK.

Patricia Yates, acting chief executive officer at Visit Britain, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee it would be helpful "to choose the countries that were valuable to us for inbound markets."

She said: "We have an international network, our American regional director is telling us sort of America is ready to go, American business is ready to go. So, possibly, you know, an air bridge between the UK and America might be one that would be valuable to us."

Outside of the US, the most valuable markets are France, Germany, Italy and Spain when it comes to possible mutual arrangements, she said.

Ms Yates added that Visit Britain was already looking at stepping up marketing in Ireland, which will be exempt from the quarantine measures regarding international travel.

Will air bridges save summer holidays?

It is not yet clear whether these arrangements will be able to salvage the summer holiday season.

Until the UK government unveils quarantine rules, travel companies will not be able to tell customers whether they will be free to travel abroad.

Mr Shapps told the Commons on Monday that the start date for the 14-day quarantining of international arrivals had been moved back from May to June.

“Final details of the quarantine scheme will be released soon and come in early next month," he said, adding that it would "initially be a blanket situation."

The Foreign Office's official advice is not to travel abroad until further notice, therefore all discussions on air bridges are currently pure speculation.

People should avoid booking summer trips until the government releases its plans, which will put further strain on the UK's travel industry.