Business travellers coming into England for trips of up to three days could be exempt from the quarantine system under new plans floated by the government on Tuesday.
A cross-departmental Global Travel Taskforce said in a report that the exemption could be introduced in early 2021, although the business visitors would be banned from any socialising while in England.
The body, chaired by health secretary Matt Hancock and transport secretary Grant Shapps, recommended a consultation with clinicians and industry to see if the policy would be practical and how it might be administered.
“The task force heard that business travel is expected to recover most slowly and that there is a clear need to boost confidence,” the report said. “An exemption for short-term business trips from the need to self-isolate on arrival would clearly have a major beneficial impact in supporting such journeys, which make an important economic contribution to the UK.”
The report noted that visits lasting up to three nights are the most common length of stay for business trips, accounting for 62 per cent of those in 2018.
Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, warmly welcomed the move. “A quarantine exemption for business travel will help to re-establish connections to key markets and trade partners across the world, helping firms that depend on the UK’s connectivity and preserving industries and livelihoods,” she said.
The task force said it was also considering an exemption for groups of overseas tourists if they stayed in “tour bubbles” of the sort used by sports teams and only travelled together in private vehicles. But it said that cruises should not be resumed until the national Covid-19 alert level dropped from its current mark of four to three or even as low as two.
The new rules would not apply to people arriving from countries on the government’s so-called green list, which have low Covid-19 infection rates and are already exempt from quarantine.
The report also said ministers wanted to strike bilateral deals with other countries under which passengers would self-isolate and take tests before departure, with a trial to be launched on some routes.
John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow airport, said the London-New York route should be a priority. “So many businesses in the City of London rely on the markets in New York to support their businesses,” he told the Financial Times’ Future of Mobility event on Tuesday.
“It’s absolutely vital that the UK re-establishes normal trade and travel with the US if we’re going to start to rebuild our economy,” he said.
Speaking before the UK government floated its new plans, the chief executive of US carrier Delta Airlines said it would be easier to open a travel corridor with “just about any” other European capital than London.
News of the task force report came as Mr Shapps announced that the quarantine system for travellers coming into England would be slashed from 14 to five days.
The new quarantine regime, which will allow travellers coming from abroad to pay for their own test after five days of self-isolation, was welcomed by much of the travel industry on Tuesday. But executives said they wanted ministers to go further to help people travel ahead of a potentially busy Christmas season.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of airline Virgin Atlantic, said the introduction of testing was a “vital first step” to opening up travel this winter. “However a five-day quarantine is likely to prove a significant deterrent for travellers, especially those on business,” he added.
Huw Merriman, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons transport select committee, said the government needed to “embrace new testing developments to reduce the quarantine period further”.
The travel industry has chafed at any restrictions on movement, and argues that testing people before they travel can help replace the current restrictions.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary called the UK’s quarantine measures a “fig leaf that doesn’t work” and insisted a pre-flight test would be more effective at controlling the spread of coronavirus.
Quarantine is “completely unpoliceable; the police cannot enforce a quarantine”, Mr O’Leary told the BBC on Tuesday.
“Test before they arrive, not five days after they arrive,” he said, adding that the police do not have the resources to check that people are self-isolating. “The idea is not well thought-out. We know a lot of people simply don’t isolate,” he said.