Executives at large multinational companies will be allowed to skip quarantine in England if they are deemed to be bringing significant economic benefit, according to government rules laid out on Tuesday.
The announcement prompted anger from opposition MPs and business groups that represent excluded smaller companies, coming amid a backlash about sponsors and officials from football’s governing bodies Uefa and Fifa being allowed to enter the country for Euro 2020 without having to quarantine.
There has also been public fury over double standards after revelations that Matt Hancock, the former UK health secretary, was conducting an affair in his private office — while telling the general public to stay two metres away from people outside their household.
Business groups also criticised the government for excluding smaller businesses and their directors from the definition of “significant economic benefit”.
“There should not be a fast lane of easements for big business while small firms are left behind,” said Craig Beaumont, policy chief at the Federation of Small Businesses.
The new rules will limit the quarantine exemption to multinational or international executives doing work that will probably create at least 500 UK jobs. This includes executives based overseas who are part of multinational companies and visiting UK-based subsidiaries or branches.
Officials said that business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng had been concerned the UK was losing out on major investments and new jobs given that international rivals had similar exemptions. They added that the rules were kept deliberately tight to keep health risks low.
Potentially eligible activity could include attending a board meeting where the meeting is due to take a decision on whether or not to make a new investment in a UK plant or subsidiary company which has at least 500 employees.
Officials said that routine business meetings or speculative sales pitches would not qualify, for example. The exemption does not apply to travellers from “red list” countries, and executives will need written confirmation from the government and Covid-19 testing before travelling.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, wrote on Twitter: “Sorry for the unparliamentary language but this just takes the pi**.
“It is the lowest-paid working people who have got our country through this crisis, risking their lives on the frontline. This is an offensive slap in the face for them and shows this government’s true colours.”
The government introduced a similar exemption for business travellers in December for company directors likely to create more than 50 jobs in the UK. This ended in the third week of January as new Covid cases surged.
The change to only include the largest companies in the UK with overseas links has led to concerns among business groups that thousands of company directors struggling to do their jobs during the Covid lockdown were being unfairly excluded.
Tej Parikh, the Institute of Directors’ chief economist, said that medium-sized enterprises “will be the powerhouses of our economic recovery, so initiatives that effectively lower quarantine requirements for executives in large businesses seem arbitrary”.
He added that efforts to return normality to business were important, “but it is also vital that the government does not overlook the crucial importance of helping SME business leaders getting back up and running by focusing purely on multinationals”.
Officials said the bar had been set high to prevent abuse by small companies falsely claiming they would grow exponentially. They added that only a very small number of critical investments would be supported by the exemption.
“Protecting public health is the government’s number one priority, which is why exemptions to quarantine from amber list countries will only apply in truly exceptional circumstances,” the government said.
Andrew Crawley, chief commercial officer at American Express Global Business Travel, a travel management company, said the move was “too little, too late” and ministers should instead focus on exempting vaccinated travellers from quarantine.
“While the government’s intentions may be genuine, this bureaucratic and opaque process is impractical. It will neither stimulate travel nor boost the economy,” he said.
At the same time, the government announced new travel exemptions for various specialist jobs such as aerospace engineers, bus drivers, technical workers and elite sports people.