As published in the Daily Telegraph:
As the UK Government, and governments around the world, grapple with the challenges of the second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is absolutely crucial that we learn the lessons of the past six months. Whilst the Government has rightly stepped in to support sectors that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, like hospitality and the arts, one sector that has been largely ignored is aviation. This is a mistake, and one that other countries across Europe have not made. We are already seeing the effect, too, as Paris Charles de Gaulle has overtaken Heathrow as the continent’s busiest airport.
The Government’s attitude towards UK aviation runs counter to its stated approach of protecting the economy and our key industries while enacting additional measures to suppress the virus. But aviation is one of our most strategically important sectors, the third largest anywhere in the world, and it is necessary to power and facilitate the economic recovery. This should not be a question of choosing between balancing health and economic considerations. By developing a functioning testing regime, based around the rapid and encouraging developments in testing technology, we can get this balance right.
The Government’s Global Travel Taskforce is an important initial step to answering this question. The deadline for when the Taskforce should have reported its conclusions has now passed, and we cannot afford any further delay. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said a plan can be put in place by 1 December, but to realise this ambition the Government must outline how it wants its model to work, so the private sector and the many testing companies looking to develop systems can build out the technology and logistics required.
So, what should this model look like?
Our ultimate ambition should be to have a pre-departure rapid testing model using antigen or LAMP tests, that gives passengers quick results at the departing airport and allows them to travel safely. This requires progress on the developments in testing, but the Government has been clear there is cause for real optimism here over the coming weeks.
In the interim, examples from around the world show us that testing following a short period of self-isolation works. This is something Germany has already deployed to great success and something we should clearly look to replicate here. Speak to the aviation sector and they will tell you that a test any later than 5 days will fail to move the needle with regards passenger demand, and we won’t see the load factors required to make routes in and out of the UK viable – including to hugely important destinations such as the United States.
Data from Visit Britain highlights both the importance of inbound travel to the UK but also the extent to which visits typically last less than a week and frequently less than three days – particularly for business trips to the UK, which typically make up around 20% of journeys. A testing regime for arrivals from these countries with a release test at 7 days will simply not open these markets to travel in a meaningful way.
Taking action on an initial 5-day regime can be done immediately and provide much needed certainty for an aviation industry that has been decimated by this crisis – even more so with the announcement of the latest four-week lockdown, which has effectively closed their businesses. But more still will be required. Put simply, aviation has never had the opportunity to recover, and airlines and airports enter this latest lockdown in a far worse position than seven months ago, with depleted balance sheets and having taken on billions of pounds of additional debt that will need to be paid back. Not to mention that we are now entering the winter season during which airlines fail to make money even in good times.
The furlough extension announced last week is welcome but will not even begin to cover the high cost base airlines and airports must grapple with, so further support in all likelihood be required, from tax relief to additional government grants or loans.
It is essential that this support is forthcoming, and quickly, recognising the perilous state of things. If we delay, we will only fall further behind our European competitors. We voted to take back control of our economic destiny but now we risk handing it straight back unless we take these steps to protect our world- leading aviation sector.