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Coronavirus: Tory MPs revolt over travel quarantine and BA job cuts

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·4-min read
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel visit a security control room in Port of Southampton, England, Monday Dec. 2, 2019, ahead of the general election on Dec. 12. (Hannah McKay/Pool via AP)
Prime minister Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel together last year as they face huge pressure over the travel sector's fate. (Hannah McKay/Pool via AP)

The UK government is facing a growing revolt over its 14-day travel quarantine plans, as Conservative MPs joined business chiefs in blasting the policy on Wednesday.

Leading business groups warned the policy risked hammering the UK travel sector, making many other firms less competitive and sending the message the UK is “closed for business.”

A string of Tory backbenchers including former ministers lined up to speak out in the Commons over the proposals, which come into effect on Monday. Several also urged ministers to take action against BA over its decision to slash 12,000 jobs while benefiting from significant government support.

Transport minister Kelly Tolhurst and then home secretary Priti Patel had to endure the wave of criticism as they took questions from MPs on Wednesday (3 June), despite polls showing 63% of voters back the plans.

READ MORE: UK economy buckles under ‘deep cuts to corporate spending’

Huw Merriman, Conservative chair of the Commons transport committee, called the quarantine “the wrong policy at the worst possible time.” Many MPs fear the policy will severely discourage travel to the UK, hammering regional airports, airlines and other firms reliant on the travel sector in constituencies across the country.

Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, said it was “essential” airports like Manchester’s could benefit from the peak summer season.

Another Conservative, Ben Spencer, dubbed the measures a “very blunt tool.” Former minister Liam Fox accused the government of “mental gymnastics” in trying to justify introducing the measures months after the pandemic began.

Several MPs called for the government to speed up plans for so-called ‘air bridges’ or ‘travel corridors,’ allowing quarantine-free travel to countries with low rates of COVID-19.

READ MORE: ‘Heartless’ British Airways under fire over redundancies

Leading UK business groups echoed their concerns and calls for exemptions for specific countries. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the impact would be felt across the economy, hitting not just tourism but also farming, finance, pharmaceuticals and others reliant on free movement of people and goods.

The CBI’s president John Allen said Britain’s economic recovery depended on the free flow of workers. He urged the government to avoid “unnecessary burdens that hurt future growth.”

Catherine McGuinness, policy chair of the City of London corporation, also urged ministers to consider UK competitiveness. She said exemptions for truck drivers and athletes but not services sector staff looked “arbitrary,” and called for internationally agreed plans to enable safe flying.

Meanwhile the London Chamber of Commerce revealed it had written to ministers warning the plans were not risk-based, limiting travel to some countries with lower infection rates than Britain. “The proposal sends out the message that the UK is closed for business,” said its chief executive Richard Burge.

But the home secretary told MPs the plans had public support, and would save lives. “We owe it to the thousands of people who have died.”

Patel said a review at the end of June would look at other countries’ COVID-19 responses in deciding if curbs could be loosened. The government was “exploring all options” for safe travel including non-essential journeys, and planned country-by-country agreements, she added.

Some Conservative MPs also echoed union leaders in calls to take away some of British Airways’ airport slots over its plans to axe 12,000 jobs, including many on taxpayer-funded furlough.

Backbencher Jerome Mayhew claimed BA had used the furlough scheme as a “convenient funding scheme for a long-planned corporate restructuring,” and dubbed it a “breach of faith.” Fellow Conservative MP James Sunderland said BA had behaved “disgracefully,” adding to criticism from Labour and other opposition MPs.

READ MORE: Hotels and travel firms slam 14-day quarantine rules

Transport minister Kelly Tolhurst expressed “regret” over job losses at BA and other airlines, saying the furlough scheme was “not designed” to support firms who swiftly also handed staff redundancy notices.

Tolhurst said the department of work and pensions would support affected workers, but said BA’s move reflected “commercial decisions.” She told MPs: “It’s a question for the organisations as to whether they feel they’re carrying out their social responsibility.”

British Airways said in a statement to Yahoo Finance UK it was protecting as many jobs as possible, and called on workforce unions to all engage in discussions over its proposals. “The airline industry is facing the deepest structural change in its history, as well as facing a severely weakened global economy,” it added.