International travel must be protected in future pandemics, MPs have urged, describing Covid restrictions imposed by the UK government as confusing, arbitrary and disproportionate.
The Commons transportation select committee said the government should learn lessons from the coronavirus pandemic to create a predictable and transparent system for future public health crises, to support travelers and the aviation industry.
In a critical report, he said foreign travel restrictions during the pandemic were “disproportionate to public health risks.”
The multi-party committee said the restrictions should be comparable to those applied domestically, and that international travel should not be “singled out”.
The report concludes that the “decision-making process was neither transparent nor consistent, nor based on scientific consensus”, resulting in rules that caused “a severe financial shock to the sector”.
The committee also criticized ministers for abdicating any responsibility for the queues, cancellations and delays seen this Easter as airlines and airports struggled to recruit staff in time for a resurgence in passenger demand, following the sudden uptick. of all Covid testing and isolation requirements.
He said the government was trying to “blame a decimated aviation sector for the restrictions and lack of certainty offered by ministers” but that it should review its own recruitment and training processes. Airlines and airports have complained about delays in government security checks for job seekers.
Committee Chairman Huw Merriman said: “The government’s action was inconsistent. It left the industry and passengers confused and unable to plan ahead. This resulted in a serious economic deficit for the aviation sector.
“Ministers must continue to protect the sector against future economic shocks and reassure passengers that future restrictions will only be implemented in extreme circumstances. Legislation is urgently needed to give the industry more flexibility to hire new staff for the summer, to give the regulator more leverage to intervene on behalf of consumers, and to provide protection against airline insolvencies.”
He added: “Above all, we want ministers to be transparent with the industry and passengers. During Holy Week we witnessed a sector in the early stages of recovery and vulnerable to disruption. The increase in demand is encouraging, but a sustained and supportive approach from the government is vital to help the sector recover.”
The report calls for action including publishing a promised aviation recovery plan; introduce an airline insolvency bill to protect consumers, employees and taxpayers; and give the regulator more powers to fine airlines for failing to refund customers when required.
The Airport Operators Association said the report was a “welcome acknowledgment of the devastating impact the pandemic has had on aviation”. Its chief executive, Karen Dee, said: “We join the committee in calling for a comprehensive recovery package that will enable our sector to recover sustainably and prevent the UK from falling behind our international competitors.”
The latest indictment of the UK’s Covid travel policies follows a critical report from the National Audit Office last week that found the central government lost count of spending and made up rules on the fly, as well as leaving the hard-pressed taxpayer for around £400m for quarantine hotels that ministers thought would be paid for by travellers.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Our priority was protecting public health, and these measures bought vital time for the launch of our successful booster program as we responded to new and concerning variants. But we also made sure they were in place for no longer than absolutely necessary, and the UK was the first G7 country to remove all travel restrictions.
“Going forward, the government’s default approach will be to use the least stringent measures to minimize the impact on travel where possible, and these will only be implemented in extreme circumstances.”