THE exasperation of Scotland’s airport bosses appears to have intensified very significantly from an already-elevated point with Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to diverge, at least temporarily, from what has largely been a four-nations approach to overseas travel recently.
The growing frustration is focused on Scotland’s reluctance to follow the Johnson administration’s decision on easing testing requirements.
This frustration is understandable. The measures announced by the UK Government last week marked a very significant step forward in terms of at last making international travel an appealing prospect with an acceptable risk profile for many people.
It is worth noting, as the Scottish Government comes under fire for not swiftly following key measures announced by the Johnson administration, that the Conservatives have themselves been slow in a European context in making overseas travel easier again.
We have, throughout the UK, had another whole summer where the uncertainty and expense of the testing regime, which has applied even to people who have been double-vaccinated, has hammered demand for international travel. This has weighed heavily on those operating in this key sector, including airports, airlines and ground-handling operations, and holiday companies, as well as their many employees.
The international travel sector is a major employer in Scotland and the UK as a whole, and large numbers of staff have remained on furlough because of the depressed demand.
Many people in the UK who might otherwise have gone abroad in recent months have opted to holiday domestically or stay at home given the onerous restrictions which have prevailed throughout the summer with the largely four-nations approach to overseas travel. Residents of European Union countries who have been fully vaccinated have in contrast been able to move freely around the bloc, without onerous, expensive and bureaucratic rules around testing, and with exemptions for children to enable families to travel together.
So the UK Government, with its planned removal of the need for travellers arriving in England from October 4 to take a pre-departure test in the country they are coming or returning from, has not been swift in a European context in opening up international travel.
It remains a great pity that the Johnson administration did not see fit to put in place some more onerous requirements for travellers from higher-risk countries, in the context of coronavirus infection rates, entering the UK in the early days of the pandemic.
And, more recently, the UK Government was way too slow to take action on arrivals from India, when that country’s infection rate spiked dramatically.
Returning to the current situation, after many spurious claims previously by the UK Government that this or that measure would facilitate international travel, the steps unveiled last week will actually make a meaningful difference.
Another key measure announced last week was the decision to, from later next month, allow people returning to England from non-red-list countries to make the “day two” test a lateral flow one, rather than the more expensive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) option.
The Johnson administration, with its planned timing of this measure, is aiming to ease things by the point people return to England from overseas holidays during the half-term break.
The UK Government said last week: “The Government wants to introduce this by the end of October, aiming to have it in place for when people return from half-term breaks.”
This summer and last, much of the major rule-setting has seemed to be targeted around the English (and not the Scottish) holidays. This will have been a frustration for some people in Scotland given the UK Government effectively framed the broad agenda on reopening overseas travel for the four home nations after both of the major lockdowns.
We have had over recent months various policy tweaks from the Johnson administration billed as making overseas travel easier and boosting this key sector of the economy.
The fact of the matter is that these tiny steps made very little difference, certainly in terms of people holidaying abroad.
Last week’s announcement does actually herald a step-change, with the planned new regime also offering important exemptions and relaxations for under-18s on testing as well as self-isolation.
It is no surprise at all, therefore, that Scottish airports and others operating in the international travel sector north of the Border are very keen indeed to see the First Minister follow suit.
The Scottish Government’s immediate response last week was that it would not, for now, be doing so.
It will be interesting to see how long this stance remains, as pressures mount.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s albeit surely misjudged decision to end the UK’s coronavirus job retention scheme this month, which looks to be a ridiculously premature removal of this key furlough support, is looming large.
The very stringent rules on international travel affecting people throughout the UK looking to go on holiday or go overseas for other reasons have for quite a while now looked extremely incongruous given we have packed football stadiums again.
We should also not underestimate the importance to the tourism sector in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK of international travellers being able once again to visit relatively easily.
Derek Provan, chief executive of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton airports owner AGS, noted last week that the reforms announced (for England) by Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps were “what we have been urging the UK Government to implement for months”.
It has indeed been a long haul on this front.
The Scottish Government is, like the Johnson administration, simplifying the traffic-light system for overseas travel, with testing requirements being the key point of divergence.
Mr Provan said last week: “The outgoing traffic-light system was both costly and confusing. Not only did the data show it to be ineffective in terms of protecting public health or detecting variants of concern, but it has been extremely damaging to our industry which has been on the brink for the last 18 months.
“It was inconceivable to think 2021 would be worse than 2020 for aviation. However, that is the reality. Now that progress is being made to strip away the layers of complexity associated with international travel, we urge the Scottish Government to adopt a four-nations approach without delay. Moving forward we need government to work with the industry to help rebuild passenger confidence and, more importantly, restore the connectivity we have lost.”
Glasgow Airport has revealed that, as things stand, it expects at best to be on a par this year with its 2020 passenger numbers, which at 1.9 million were at their lowest since the 1970s.
Given the rapid rollout of the vaccination programme, this is surely a demoralising situation.
A spokesman for Glasgow Airport said yesterday: “We are looking down south and seeing airports and airlines getting more confident and passengers getting more confident. We don’t have that. We are seeing the layers of complexity being slowly removed down south. In Scotland, we are lagging behind. That will have serious impact on our long-term connectivity.”
He added: “The airlines will just follow the passengers.”
Edinburgh Airport’s chief executive, meanwhile, issued a very forthright message to the Scottish Government yesterday, hammering home what is at stake.
Gordon Dewar said: “Aviation has been one of the hardest-hit sectors throughout the pandemic and we will be one of the last to fully recover, but when we talk about aviation, we have to consider what it brings to Scotland.
“Aviation brings people to Scotland, be they tourists or students, researchers or families. It brings business and investment to Scotland. It takes Scottish businesses and talent to the world. It is important to our economy and its recovery. Unfortunately, we are lagging behind our competitors due to tighter restrictions and slower relaxations and will only isolate ourselves further if we don’t have a coherent strategy in place.”
He added: “This is a chain economy – travel brings people, jobs, investment and spend to Scotland, and we must act to protect the travel sector and the many moving parts of it. Further divergence won’t do that, and we again urge the Scottish Government to listen to clinicians and follow a four-nations approach that will help both public health and economic health.”
His comments came as Edinburgh Airport appeared to ramp up the pressure by publishing a report it had produced in July, emphasising this had been “shared with Scottish Government ministers to help inform the debate and decisions regarding international travel”.
Mr Dewar believes the report can help shape a “recovery strategy so we can position ourselves on solid footing to recover as quickly and [sustainably] as possible”.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, also underlined just how vital connectivity is to the nation and its economy.
She said: “This report highlights the importance of aviation to Scotland’s recovery and how the sector links into the wider economy. This is more than just travel and tourism – it’s also about business investment, international trade and exports, and the many thousands of jobs that are supported by Scotland’s connectivity to the world.
“A four-nations approach will ensure Scotland remains competitive and well placed to recover sustainably, and we hope this report helps to inform the Scottish Government’s decision.”
Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a terrible toll.
And decisions as we emerge from it – a journey thankfully enabled by global vaccine development success and rapid rollout of immunisation programmes – must continue to be guided by public-health considerations.
However, like England has been as well until now, Scotland does look far adrift of the pack on easing restrictions on overseas travel in an international context.
And its divergence with England could cause Scotland particular problems on future connectivity if it continues, as airlines make crucial decisions on routes.
The divergence means that people in Scotland will, as things stand, continue to face what they will in many cases view as barriers to travel that they do not have the tenacity, risk appetite and/or money to overcome.
And many thousands of jobs in the international travel sector will be at greater risk than they might be otherwise, especially with furlough coming to a close. The longer the divergence with England remains on the travel rules, the greater the already-elevated risk of permanent loss of routes and connectivity, to the detriment of businesses and consumers.
The Scottish Government must, day by day, keep asking itself whether there is a compelling reason why it is unable to ease testing requirements to enable double-vaccinated people to travel freely with their families to lower-risk destinations, make things easier for overseas visitors, and aid the economy.
Its current divergence from England on this front is a very big call indeed, with major and widespread implications.