Foreign holidays as normal this summer “was never going to be the case”, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has said as he defended the government’s COVID travel policy.
Mr Buckland said “significant trade-offs” have had to be made to ensure COVID cases are kept down, with international travel restricted to “prevent inadvertent spread of new variants of concern”.
It follows criticism by pilots of the “ludicrously cautious” travel restrictions which they say has caused the UK’s aviation industry to be “the hardest hit in Europe”.
Speaking to Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday, Mr Buckland said ministers will continue to be “guided by the evidence” when it comes to travelling abroad.
“Inevitably, in a situation as unprecedented and demanding as this, there are going to have to be significant trade-offs and it’s clear that holidays as normal – or travel as normal – was never going to be the case, bearing in mind the rise of particular variants, most notably the Delta variant,” the justice secretary said.
“Throughout this crisis we’ve tried to strike the right balance between the natural need in some cases for international travel but also the imperative of making sure that we do everything we can at home to contain and prevent inadvertent spread of new variants of concern.
“This is a hugely difficult situation – I think of omelettes and eggs, I’m afraid – but we are doing our very best to maintain that balance with regular reviews of the regulations to allow the maximum flexibility.”
He added: “We’re not standing still on these matters and that will continue guided by the evidence we have.”
It comes as the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) accused ministers of appearing to “deliberately attack” the sector with the measures they have imposed during the pandemic.
The union is calling on the government to “get its act together” and open “the US routes and European holiday travel destinations” it has blocked with “no published evidence”.
BALPA members will join colleagues from across the aviation and travel industry as part of a nationwide Travel Day of Action on Wednesday, which is designed to put pressure on the UK government to support a “safe return to international travel in time for the peak summer period”.
The union’s analysis of official European air traffic data for June showed that the number of flights into and out of the UK has fallen by three-quarters compared with 2019.
The union said its study showed that Gatwick and Manchester airports were the worst affected in Europe, with Heathrow and Stansted close behind.
BALPA claims figures from the International Air Transport Association world trade body show 860,000 jobs have been lost, or are on furlough and are at risk of being lost, in UK aviation travel and tourism.
Brian Strutton, the union’s general secretary, said: “It’s official. The UK aviation industry is the hardest hit in Europe, caused by the UK government’s ludicrously cautious restrictions on international travel.
“Hapless ministers give all the appearance of deliberately attacking aviation and tormenting the public with their mixed messages over summer holidays.
“BALPA is demanding that the UK government gets its act together and opens the US routes and European holiday travel destinations that it has blocked with no published evidence at all.
“If the country is going to build back better from the pandemic and build new international links with partners for trade and travel, we are going to need a thriving aviation industry. There is no time to hide behind taskforces and reviews.”
Wednesday’s “day of action” is designed to put pressure on the UK government to support a “safe return to international travel in time for the peak summer period”.
The aviation and travel industries want the government to increase the number of countries on the green list while keeping a “strong red list to guard against variants”.
They also want the government to bring forward a package of tailored financial support, including an extension of furlough support, for those working in the sector who may need it.
Those taking part in the day of action are urged to take the message to their MP.
Pilots will also join action at Heathrow, Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester airports.
A government spokesman said: “We recognise the challenging times facing all sectors of transport as a result of COVID-19, which is why we have put in place an economy-wide support package, including around £7bn of support expected to benefit the air transport sector by September 2021.
“We continue to work with the aviation sector to help them navigate this period, and encourage them to draw on the unprecedented package of support measures available.”