The chief executive of Heathrow airport has called on the UK government to ease curbs on flights between countries with low coronavirus infection rates, or risk further damage to the economy.
The government has said it plans to introduce a 14-day quarantine for people arriving in the country by air, as part of a broader set of measures to ease lockdown restrictions.
But on Sunday John Holland-Kaye warned that such restrictions should not remain in place for more than a “relatively short amount of time”.
“This is where we are urging the government to have a common international standard, working with other countries so that traffic can start to flow in a normal way between low-risk countries,” Mr Holland-Kaye told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
The chief executive described aviation as the “lifeblood” of the economy, noting that under lockdown the average number of people flying from Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, had collapsed from about 250,000 a day to between 5,000 and 6,000.
Alok Sharma, the UK’s business secretary, said at the daily Downing Street press briefing on Sunday that the government would set out some “exceptions” to the 14-day rule, perhaps involving people carrying freight.
But he added: “The key thing right now is to make sure we keep the ‘R’ down,” referring to the virus transmission rate.
The quarantine is one of the measures aimed at suppressing new coronavirus infections as the UK emerges from lockdown. But in some parts of the world, countries with low infection rates have started working to set up quarantine-free “bubbles” or “travel corridors”.
Mr Holland-Kaye said: “We need to start planning ahead for how we start to reopen our borders so we can start to get the economy back on its feet.”
It was not just about holidays, he said, noting that 40 per cent of the UK’s exports leave on passenger planes from Heathrow. “Many manufacturers rely on the supply chain coming by air; their exports go by air.”
He added: “I think that if the UK government, with one of the biggest aviation sectors in the world, were to get together with the European Union and the United States, between them they have the heft and the global, diplomatic and economic power to set that international standard.
“I think the approach to take is the risk-based approach as we do with security, where if two countries are very low-risk . . . there should be a free flow of passengers between those countries.”
Mr Holland-Kaye’s comments come after all five key UK manufacturing sectors warned the 14-day quarantine could disrupt production, leading to supply shortages and further job losses.
The automotive, aviation, chemical, food and pharmaceutical industries have called for exemptions to ensure the smooth operation and safety of their factories, many of which depend on specialist “fly in, fly out” engineers to service production lines.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The aviation sector is important to the UK economy and ministers are in regular contact with its senior representatives to discuss the challenges they are facing and ways we can support.
“We continue to look at the best ways to restart all forms of transport, while also ensuring we limit the risk of creating a second wave of cases.”
Mr Holland-Kaye added that from next week, Heathrow would introduce temperature checks for passengers travelling through Terminal 2.
“We are working with Public Health England to see if that could be part of the solution to health screening at airports,” he said.
On the possibility of “immunity passports”, which could allow people to fly if they showed antibodies for coronavirus, he said: “It’s no good the UK having a health passport if another country has an entirely different system.
“We need to have that commonality between markets so that we know your health passport is accepted in the country you’re going to.”