Boris Johnson refuses to budge over Covid testing at borders

The Great Air Revolt takes off! Boris Johnson refuses to budge over Covid testing at borders as furious Tories and business leaders call for immediate action to get Britain flying again

  • Johnson has resisted calls from angry MPs to implement testing at UK airports
  • An airport boss has said that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps won’t talk to him 
  • British families are angry after getting caught up in Portugal quarantine fiasco
  • A string of business leaders issued dire warnings about the disastrous economic consequences of failing to get Britain flying again saying: ‘We are crash landing’

Boris Johnson was facing a dramatic revolt from his own MPs last night over Covid testing at borders.

Former ministers joined furious business chiefs in demanding immediate action to get Britain flying again.

David Davis, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Paul Maynard were among senior Tories to speak out against the Government.

MPs reported a ‘groundswell of anxiety’ in the party’s ranks over the massive damage 14-day quarantine is inflicting on the economy.

It is thought that 40 backbenchers could join a rebellion over the shambles ahead of a Commons debate next week. Rolls-Royce and Airbus yesterday joined the Daily Mail’s Get Britain Flying Again campaign. It calls for a virus testing regime to rescue the economy and save thousands of jobs.

Despite the uproar, Mr Johnson yesterday insisted tests at airports and ports would create a ‘false sense of security’ and quarantine was ‘vital’ to tame the pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Pictured) has insisted tests at airports and ports would create a ‘false sense of security’ and quarantine was ‘vital’ to tame the pandemic

And Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested he was looking at a two-step testing system to reduce quarantine to ‘perhaps seven or eight days’. However he warned it was not a ‘silver bullet’ for air travel.

In return, industry leaders accused the Government of ‘completely disengaging’. They claimed ministers had cancelled all meetings on the issue two weeks ago and had failed to properly analyse data from the dozens of countries using airport testing.

Henry Smith, whose constituency includes Gatwick, led the Tory anger, saying: ‘We are supposed to be looking to be global Britain and yet we are at a competitive disadvantage to those countries like Germany, like France, that are testing passengers.

‘I would urge the Government to reconsider. That is a very important part of public health confidence, confidence in flying and competitiveness of the UK economy.’

Senior Tories Patrick McLoughlin, Iain Duncan Smith, Jeremy Hunt and Damian Green all also support testing. As Labour demanded a rapid review of the ‘chaotic’ self-isolation scheme:

  • Ryanair threw its support behind the Mail’s testing campaign while Rolls-Royce and Airbus warned thousands of jobs were at stake;
  • Virgin Atlantic said it would cut 1,150 more jobs and Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye warned of an ‘unemployment pandemic’;
  • Pilots union Balpa said the Government’s response was ‘lamentable’ and wrote to Mr Shapps to demand airport testing;
  • Airlines UK said quarantine had led to the worst year for British aviation in three decades;
  • Economists said the restrictions were costing the economy £650million a week.

5 questions they WON’T answer 

The Daily Mail put these five questions to Downing Street yesterday but has so far not had a response

  • 1 – Why has Britain failed to introduce an airport coronavirus testing regime when more than 30 countries worldwide have done so?
  • 2 – Why can’t we bring in two-step testing when the Government’s own scientists say it could detect the vast majority of cases and slash quarantine?
  • 3 – When will the Government commit to making a decision on introducing such a scheme?
  • 4 – Why have ministers not even been to visit Heathrow’s ready-to-go testing facility?
  • 5 – How can the Government claim that Britain will become a global trading nation after Brexit when the airline industry is crippled by quarantine? 

On a visit to Solihull in the West Midlands, Mr Johnson said a single test on arrival would detect only 7 per cent of cases, adding: ‘So 93 per cent of the time you could have a real false sense of security, a false sense of confidence when you arrive and take a test.

‘That’s why the quarantine system that we have has got to be an important part of our repertoire, of our toolbox, in fighting Covid.’

Industry leaders said this disregarded official research suggesting a second test after five days would catch 85 per cent of cases, and 96 per cent after eight days.

Former Brexit  secretary Mr Davis claimed the quarantine policy had been based on ‘guesswork from the beginning’.

‘If you have to have a quarantine, you can reduce your timescale to less than five days,’ he told the BBC’s Week in Westminster.

‘For most people, it’s manageable. But two weeks for a factory worker or two weeks for somebody who works in a garage, who works as a salesman or saleswoman and in a store, that’s crippling for many of my less well-off constituents.’

Mr Grayling, a former transport secretary, told the Commons: ‘The industry is suffering badly in the current crisis, and the level of job losses is profoundly concerning. It is really important that we get the transatlantic routes going again.’

Mr Maynard, who was the aviation minister until February, said: ‘The Government needs to introduce testing. Quarantine is causing immense complications for holidaymakers and the travel sector and I congratulate the Daily Mail for leading the charge on this issue.’

Another former aviation minister, Miss Villiers, said: ‘There is great anxiety among Conservative backbenchers because we know so many businesses in our constituencies will go under without support for aviation.’

The Mail’s call for airport testing has received the backing of almost every airline and airport boss in the country. The Department for Transport is also being lobbied by US businesses and airlines desperate to reopen ‘economic artery’ routes across the Atlantic.

Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye told the BBC’s World at One: ‘We’ve got to avoid this becoming an unemployment pandemic.’

A Department for Transport spokesman said financial help had been given to the aviation sector and work was being done to assess how testing could be used to reduce the self-isolation period.

Logistics firms Swissport and Collinson, which have built a Covid testing facility at Heathrow, yesterday wrote to Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying the ‘efficacy and safety of Covid-19 testing on arrival is now beyond dispute’.

Shapps and Co will not even talk to us, says airport boss

By Tom Payne, Transport Correspondent for the Daily Mail

Aviation bosses last night accused ministers of ‘completely disengaging’ from the industry over airport coronavirus tests.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has not held an official meeting with Heathrow airport in recent weeks despite mounting evidence of an industry in crisis.

Derek Provan, the boss of Southampton, Aberdeen and Glasgow airports, said: ‘We are isolated as an industry and they are not interested in talking to us about testing.

‘We are trying to tell the Government we are experts in transport but they are completely disregarding us. Why can they not at least have a conversation about it?’

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (pictured) has not held an official meeting with Heathrow airport in recent weeks despite mounting evidence of an industry in crisis

A senior aviation source said that a fortnight ago, as criticism of the quarantine policy mounted, the Department for Transport ‘stopped all engagement with the industry – this was a crazy move given the severity of the crisis’.

The source added: ‘Many in the industry are very angry at the lack of engagement. It has been a wall of silence.’

John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, is in regular contact with Mr Shapps but has told of his frustration at the lack of official meetings to discuss testing.

He has pointed out that the boss of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris has had numerous official meetings with the transport minister in France, where airport testing is in place and passenger numbers are recovering.

Pressure is now mounting on Mr Shapps to hold urgent crisis talks with Airlines UK and the Airport Operators Association, the trade bodies representing Britain’s aviation sector, as well as Heathrow.

Heathrow said: ‘We urge all decision makers to start more effective engagement to ensure the right and safe solution is found.’

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: ‘We urgently need to get passenger connectivity with key markets going again and that needs a smart testing regime instead of quarantine. The urgency cannot be overstated and we are losing time.’

The DfT said it has held regular meetings with the industry and work is being done to ‘consider if and how testing could be used to reduce the self-isolation period’.

Anger for British families caught in Portugal fiasco 

By John Stevens and Liz Hull for the Daily Mail

Ministers faced a furious backlash from holidaymakers yesterday as they were forced to admit the Government’s quarantine policy was confusing passengers.

Angry travellers branded the quarantine policy a ‘shambles’ after racing home from Portugal and Greece – only for both to unexpectedly remain on England’s travel corridor list.

At the same time, the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales imposed restrictions on travellers arriving from the two countries, leading to a divide across the UK.

Last night, there were questions over whether the Government had heeded the recommendations of its Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), which advises on the threat faced by travel from foreign nations. Downing Street did not deny that the advice from the JBC had been that travel from Portugal and the six Greek islands restricted by Wales should be subject to quarantine.

Angry travellers branded the quarantine policy a ‘shambles’ after racing home from Portugal (pictured)  and Greece

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tried to defend taking a different decision from Scotland and Wales, but accepted it created problems for travellers.

‘I do realise it creates confusion for people not to have a single rule, but we do have this devolved approach throughout the United Kingdom and I can only be responsible for the English part of that,’ he told Sky News.

The Cabinet minister said he had concluded no changes were necessary partly because ‘test positivity for example in Portugal actually came down’, while the number of cases overall in Greece had fallen.

But Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething said he had acted in line with the risk assessments from the Government’s own advisers. Scotland and Wales imposed 14 days of isolation on arrivals from Portugal, while Scotland included Greece on its quarantine list, and Wales added seven Greek islands.

A No 10 spokesman said: ‘Ministers assess the data which is provided by JBC and the JBC risk assessments are assessed by ministers.’

Jonathan Lake, from Cardiff (pictured) is on holiday with his family in Crete, which was added to the Welsh Government’s ‘red’ list yesterday

Hundreds of Britons forked out thousands of pounds for return flights as they cut short their holidays over concerns a rise in coronavirus cases in Portugal in particular would prompt ministers to bring in restrictions. Others cancelled their breaks amid fears they would not be able to work or their children go to school on their return.

Jonathan Lake, from Cardiff, is on holiday with his family in Crete, which was added to the Welsh Government’s ‘red’ list yesterday.

He said: ‘It’s the lack of consistent messaging and management across the whole UK Government that I’m really angry about now.

‘People on that flight from England, they can just go and live their life as normal, but because I live in Wales, Vaughan Gething has said, “screw you, I’m going to make you sit in your house for 14 days”. It’s a joke, an absolute joke.’

Bristol father John Cushing said he had to cut his Portugal holiday short to beat the quarantine that never happened and get his daughter Georgie, 12, back to school.

He paid £1,000 for flights home on Thursday after seeing reports it could have been added to the list. He said: ‘My daughter was in tears yesterday at the thought of not being able to go back to school and see her friends. The airlines have us over a barrel.’

Boris Johnson insisted last night that ‘overwhelmingly the UK is proceeding as one’.

He said different devolved administrations had ‘different rates of infectivity’ and approaches to the crisis. But he added: ‘I think you will find if you dig below the surface… you will find overwhelmingly the UK takes the same approach.’ 

Bristol father John Cushing (pictured right) said he had to cut his Portugal holiday short to beat the quarantine that never happened and get his daughter Georgie, 12, (left) back to school

UK’s top bosses: We are crash landing 

By Francesca Washtell and Tom Payne for the Daily Mail 

A string of business leaders yesterday issued dire warnings about the disastrous economic consequences of failing to get Britain flying again.

Rolls-Royce, which makes and services engines for airlines around the world, threw its weight behind the campaign to bring in an airport Covid testing regime.

Experts said quarantine rules for travellers coming to Britain are costing the tourism industry £650million a week.

It came as Virgin Atlantic announced it would cut another 1,150 jobs in a further blow to the aviation sector.

Industry leaders, airlines and airports have warned the economy will nose dive until crippling 14-day quarantines can be eliminated and passengers can move smoothly through borders.

Meanwhile, leading American businesses and airlines have called on UK ministers to take action to introduce airport testing to open up transatlantic travel.

Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have suffered huge losses after lockdown restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus brought global air travel almost to a standstill for several months.

Rolls-Royce chief executive Warren East said increasing air travel would be crucial to preserving thousands of jobs in the UK’s world-leading aerospace manufacturing industry.

Mr East said: ‘Aviation has a vital role to play in helping the world recover from the pandemic. But this is not only about reconnecting people, trade and tourism.

‘The aerospace industry employs tens of thousands in the UK and generates revenue and intellectual property for the country. Getting people flying again needs to be a high priority for the Government.’

Rolls-Royce has been forced to axe 9,000 staff – nearly one in five workers – and to raise £2billion by selling off parts of its business as it struggles to survive the crisis.

Paul Everitt, the chief executive of aerospace and defence industry body ADS, said companies could halt job cuts and keep staff on their books if there was greater demand for flights. Britain’s aerospace and defence industry employs around 250,000, both directly and in the wider supply chain. Some 60,000 of these are either on furlough or at risk of redundancy, according to ADS.

Mr Everitt said: ‘If we at least had the confidence that there would be a growing number of air passengers and if we had a testing regime to build back that passenger base, then we would know we had reached the bottom and would start rising back up.’ The quarantine measures have also damaged the UK’s hospitality and in-bound tourism sectors.

According to the latest estimates from Visit Britain, the number of foreign visitors has dropped by 73 per cent compared with last year – a loss of 31million tourists. Spending by visitors was down by 79 per cent, equal to £24billion.

Virgin Atlantic said yesterday it would be forced to make more sweeping cuts despite securing a £1.2billion rescue deal that will keep it going for the next 18 months.

It had already laid off 3,500 employees out of the 10,000-strong workforce it had at the beginning of the year and shut its base at Gatwick.

Virgin, alongside other groups including Heathrow Airport and Airlines UK, has urged the US and UK governments to launch a passenger testing trial for flights between New York and London by the end of the month.

At the moment Britons cannot enter the US directly from the UK, and those travelling from the US to the UK must self-isolate for two weeks when they arrive.

Industry bodies British American Business (BAB), which represents top US and UK banks and businesses, and Airlines for America, whose members include all the major US airlines, said testing was the only way to reopen transatlantic travel.

BAB chief executive Duncan Edwards said: ‘Covid-19 testing before departure or at airports will be an effective risk mitigation measure for destinations considered to be at higher risk.’ 

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