Boris Johnson faces growing pressure from airlines, holiday firms and his own backbenchers to scrap plans to quarantine people arriving in the UK.
New arrivals will have to stay in quarantine for 14 days under new rules set to take effect next week.
But airlines, travel and hospitality companies have warned the plans are “unworkable” and could devastate the travel industry.
A letter now signed by more than 200 travel firms urges Home Secretary Priti Patel to think again.
The letter warns: “The very last thing the travel industry needs is a mandatory quarantine imposed on all arriving passengers, which will deter foreign visitors from coming here, deter UK visitors from travelling abroad and, most likely, cause other countries to impose reciprocal quarantine requirements on British visitors, as France has already announced”.
Instead, airlines have urged ministers to exempt a list of 45 countries from the rules – creating quarantine-free “air bridges.”
These agreements would enable people to travel – without being quarantined – between countries where the risk of being infected by coronavirus is deemed to be low.
Number 10 said the measure is being introduced to avoid “importing” new cases of the virus as the UK battles to reduce the infection rate.
But the Prime Minister’s spokesman said the government was “looking at” the idea of air bridges.
“It’s something we’ve said we’re looking at and that remains the case,” the spokesman said. “We’ve set out the reasons why we believe (quarantine) is a necessary step: its intention is to control the spread of the virus and protect the British public.”
There’s unease among the Prime Minister’s own party over the measures, with as many as 20 Tory MPs reportedly calling for them to be abandoned.
Some are concerned the measures are being brought in too late – months after other countries installed border quarantines.
Tory MP Henry Smith, who chairs the Future of Aviation Group of MPs, said: “If we were ever going to have a blanket quarantine policy, it should have come in two or three months ago – we should be coming out of it now, not going into it.”
Spain confirmed today it was to lift border quarantine measures on June 21, just two weeks after the UK’s measures will take effect.
Italy’s 14-day quarantine for tourists will be lifted on Wednesday, after introducing them in March.
Germany had quarantine measures in place from April 10 to May 15.
And France is set to “gradually lift” its border restrictions from “mid-June”.
Former Tory minister Theresa Villiers said today the rules should be targeted at “flights from Covid hotspots” rather than a blanket measure.
“I think we really do need to find ways to ease travel between this country and other countries like Italy and Spain and France where not only are there important business connections but people do desperately want to be able to take their summer holiday,” she said.
She added: “I appreciate why the Government is bringing in quarantine but I do think that applying it in a blanket way across the board is an over-reaction.
“And my understanding is that the Government is actively looking at air bridges and to try to target this requirement in a more focused way and I really hope they’re able to do that rather than bringing it in across the board.”
But Business Secretary Alok Sharma defended the plans, saying firms including the aviation sector had access to Government support during the coronavirus crisis.
“They all recognise that we have to make sure that we are taking care of the health of the nation, and that ultimately is what will lead to preserving the health of the economy,” he said.
“I think what is right is to make sure we approach all of this in a really cautious way.”
He added: “There are a whole range of exemptions that have been published, and that includes for road hauliers, it includes for people who are coming to fix critical infrastructure, critical machinery, and that’s what businesses want to see.”
But Huw Merriman, Conservative chair of the transport select committee, said: “Personally, I think it’s the wrong policy at this time and disproportionately impacts the economy.
“We should ditch blanket quarantine and self-distancing on planes and have different measures such as air bridges, compulsory PPE and temperature testing at airports.”
And Tory MP James Sunderland said “we need to bring the quarantine period in, but make sure that there are exemptions that allow the economy to breathe again and to allow businesses to operate”.
He added: “I know that I’m not the only MP who has expressed reservations on this. I think we have a duty to make sure that we don’t impact unnecessarily upon the aviation industry… I think we need to do everything possible to make sure that airlines can operate, that we don’t damage the industry too much and that we seek as many exemptions to the policy as possible so that we don’t inflict unnecessary harm.”
Despite growing unease on the Tory back benches, Boris Johnson has little to fear from a rebellion from his own MPs.
The Prime Minister intends to introduce the new rules without a Commons vote, tacking them on to existing Public Health laws.
The rules will be subject to mandatory review every three weeks.
The letter was originally written by George Morgan-Grenville, chief executive of the tour operator Red Savannah.
It’s since been endorsed by more than 200 firms and business leaders, including hotelier Sir Rocco Forte, The Ritz, Connaught and Mandarin Oriental hotels and travel agency Kuoni.
Mr Morgan-Grenville said: “This is not just a group of company bosses complaining but employees from bottom to top calling for the quarantine plans to be quashed.
“The extent of their pain is deeply worrying for our economy and our country.”
In another letter last month, bosses of EasyJet, Tui, Jet2 and Virgin Atlantic, plus industry bodies including Airlines UK, the British Chambers of Commerce, UK Hospitality and manufacturing association Make UK, warned the Prime Minister they had “serious reservations” about a blanket policy of quarantining all arrivals to the UK.