Public health experts and officials have warned that the idea of “air bridge” links between the UK and overseas holiday destinations may prove impossible this summer, amid continued concern over how they could operate safely.
A number of Conservative MPs are pushing for air bridges – mutual agreements with other countries to allow travellers to fly in and out without coronavirus quarantine restrictions – ahead of the imposition of the UK’s 14-day quarantine system next week.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, is to announce how the quarantine process will work in a statement to the Commons on Wednesday, and is coming under significant pressure from Tory MPs to signal a willingness to implement air bridges amid fears over the new measures’ effect on the tourism and hospitality sectors.
Writing in Wednesday’s Telegraph alongside the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, Patel said: “We owe it to the victims of Covid-19 to impose quarantine,” arguing it was crucial and tourism would be up and running faster if tough measures were taken.
But progress has so far been slow. When the government announced the quarantine plans on 22 May, air bridges were mentioned among “further options” to be explored. There have been no updates since.
Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was – and always will be – central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014-15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.
Most people who get Covid-19 will be infected by their friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, so they will be first on the list. It is not likely anyone will get infected by someone they do not know, passing on the street.
It is still assumed there has to be reasonable exposure – originally experts said people would need to be together for 15 minutes, less than 2 metres apart. So a contact tracer will want to know who the person testing positive met and talked to over the two or three days before they developed symptoms and went into isolation.
South Korea has large teams of contact tracers and notably chased down all the contacts of a religious group, many of whose members fell ill. That outbreak was efficiently stamped out by contact tracing and quarantine.
Singapore and Hong Kong have also espoused testing and contact tracing and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the “backbone of the response” in every country.
Sarah Boseley Health editor
A series of reports have predicted air bridges could be in place by the end of June. While this appears to be the preference of the Department for Transport, other departments are understood to be more cautious and want to establish how they would work.
A Whitehall source urged caution against the idea of air bridges being introduced within weeks: “Obviously we want to see travel corridors introduced as soon as possible, but only when it’s safe to do so.”
Public health experts have also noted the potential logistical difficulties of the UK having arrangements with any European countries that currently have much lower coronavirus infection levels.
David Hunter, professor of epidemiology at Oxford University, said: “Air bridges between countries with similar Covid risks make sense, if it’s in the interests of both countries. When it’s asymmetric, it’s not obvious how that would work.”
Another pitfall, he said, would be that the Covid-19 situation was “dynamic”. He said: “If you went on vacation to a country thought to be low risk, but while you’re there, there’s a massive outbreak, would you now be handled differently? You probably should be. If you could book a vacation two months in advance, and things change, what are the rules on insurance and refunds?
“If the countries agree and the rules are clear and the contingencies are clear, then at least people know what they could be in for, whereas if it’s all vague then it’s a bigger risk.”
Another area to think about, Hunter said, was tracing coronavirus cases abroad: “If I go to Greece and return to the UK, what if someone in Greece I’ve been in close contact with returns a positive test? I don’t think any version of test, trace and isolate is going to reach me. Ideally we would have a reciprocal test and trace system that was shared by countries who were sharing people. But it is not clear our UK app can handle international notifications.”
Gary McLean, a professor in molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University, raised similar concerns. “They’re saying, if you’re travelling from country X, which has a low number of cases, you’re OK, but if you’re from country Y, which has a lot of cases you’re not OK? It’s hard to monitor,” he said.
“Even at the border, when [travellers] arrive, did they come via a hotspot? Or did they start at a hotspot and come via a country that isn’t a hotspot? There are lots of problems.”
McLean said there were already some countries that had signalled the UK – with one of the worst rates of infection in the world – would not be on their list of travel partners. He warned that government “back-pedalling” would affect how individuals stuck to the rules.
“This is yet another initiative that is going to be open to interpretation, open to abuse, and the government is back-pedalling over pressure internally within the Tory party, within business, and it seems to be a political decision, not a health decision,” he said.
Even some countries with low coronavirus infection rates may yet allow UK tourists to arrive. Greece, which has seen very few Covid deaths, announced at the weekend it would allow Britons to travel, potentially after an overnight hotel stay to permit a coronavirus test.
Among Tory MPs pushing for the policy is Henry Smith, whose Crawley constituency includes Gatwick airport. He said that in the case of places like Greece and Spain, there was “an economic argument to go ahead with air bridges if at all possible”.
“I’m hopeful in tomorrow’s statement that there might be at least an acknowledgment that it’s something that can be looked at in the coming weeks,” he said. “This would be the lifeline that would get the travel and aviation industries through the summer.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Our priority will always be to protect the public’s health and these new measures are being introduced to do exactly this. We have received clear scientific advice and the quarantine system is designed to keep the transmission rate down, stop new cases being brought in from abroad and help prevent a devastating second wave of coronavirus.
“We are supporting businesses in the tourism sector through one of the most generous economic packages provided anywhere in the world and we will continue to look at options to increase international travel, when it is safe to do so, as we move forward.”