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The UK on Sunday became one of the latest countries to announce quarantine measures, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson issuing airlines an advance warning of a 14-day period for most people arriving from abroad.
“What we will be asking people to do on entering the UK is supply their contact details and details of their accommodation, and to self-isolate in their accommodation for 14 days, other than those on a short list of exemptions,” the government said in further details released on Monday.
Experts have warned it sounds the death knell for corporate travel in the short term, affecting suppliers not just in the UK but other countries as well.
“In essence, this is saying you can’t have business travel. Quarantining people kills business travel,” said GoldSpring Consulting associate Chris Pouney.
“For those UK airlines and travel-related businesses that are already under financial pressure, this quarantine requirement will push them off the cliff if this is to be maintained over time,” added industry analyst Hans Joergen Elnaes. “The new quarantine regulation is also likely to cripple airports and prolong recovery from Covid-19.”
While the new regulation that the UK faces effectively rules out any form of inbound business travel, returning employees will also be affected.
“If an employee needs to travel to a destination that requires quarantine on arrival and then return to the UK, businesses are effectively looking at the employee being away for a minimum of one month for a one-day trip with 14 days’ quarantine at either end,” said Kate Suddards, director of Bollin Consultancy.
“It brings with it a mass of concerns around business impact, legality, duty of care, risk exposure and mental health. From a health perspective we do need to proceed cautiously, but this headline announcement is deeply worrying for the sector and global businesses.”
Backing the Bubble
The UK quarantine rules are understood to have exemptions — for now including passengers from France and the Republic of Ireland. This could signal the start of more bilateral agreements, each one critical in driving economic recovery.
“Business travel is likely to be seriously impacted, at least from those countries with which the UK does not have a bilateral agreement with,” said Elnaes.
He said “bubble blocks” will facilitate the return of corporate travel. So-called travel bubbles are already emerging in the tourism industry, in particular between Australia and New Zealand, where neighboring countries create corridors to ensure the safe passage of tourists to resorts or other destinations.
“Excluding flights to countries that have bilateral agreements in place can lead to bubble blocks. Pan-European coordinated measures would be the best solution, as country-by-country initiatives will make the airlines’ recovery plans extremely complicated.”
Bollin’s Suddards agreed: “With the mention of Ireland and France being exempt, are we looking to replicate a travel bubble similar to Australia and New Zealand. Could this be extended further to other European countries such as Germany?”
She added that a Vienna-style approach to testing could be an alternative option and potentially ease movements. Vienna Airport is offering $200 coronavirus tests to arrivals to bypass quarantine.
Heathrow Airport, meanwhile, has also said it wants to see international standards put in place to speed up recovery.
Quarantines also hinder responsible procurement practice, where travel managers and suppliers openly communicate with each other around their recovery plans.
“The anticipated changes for inbound air travel will significantly impact demand, meaning capacity reduction programs will likely continue beyond any initial reopening phases,” risk consultancy Anvil said in response to the UK’s new measures.
“These measures reflect those already introduced by other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Scheduled airline global flying capacity fell to 26.6 million seats for the week 4-10 May.”
“What’s going to come first, the demand or the supply?” asked GoldSpring’s Pouney. “If travel buyers are doing their job properly, both would appear at the same time, to match the supply with the demand. Airlines are monitoring this closely, they don’t want to fly empty aircraft.”
With the UK’s focus on airlines in the quarantine rules, Eurostar may find itself an unlikely beneficiary of this latest crackdown.
“Eurostar has often been considered a flight, from an operational process in certain cases, with its passport control and security checks. It feels like an airport. Has that been lost in the detail?” Pouney said.
Eurostar told Skift that it would not comment on the government announcement, but did say “it will continue to monitor demand to ensure that the frequency of our service continues to allow that that need to travel to do so in a safe way”.
Planning the Next Steps
As the UK industry waits for more details, corporates will need to take stock of each country’s legislation.
“It’s important that travel managers get to grips with what that means for the markets they operate in,” said Tristan Smith, vice president of customer success at Egencia.
“We could see a case where business travelers are exempt from 14-day quarantine period and instead undergo screening 72 hours before travel, when they arrive and then have a reduced two-day quarantine instead.”
Corporates can also expect to spend more on travel with unwanted extra delays creeping in, she warned. “We’re having a lot more conversations with customers around pre-trip approvals, particularly as the cost of a trip will increase end-to-end, but so will the strategic value of each trip to the business. Should all trips require pre-approval or just non-domestic trips? What can we do to help boost their duty of care for any employee traveling?”
The European Union is expected to share details of cross-border travel later this month, while there are hopes the UK’s quarantine will be short-lived.
“The quarantine outlined by the government needs to be a short-term measure, reviewed regularly and eased as soon as possible,” said Clive Wratten, CEO of the Business Travel Association.
“While it is in place, it’s crucial that all elements of the business travel supply chain remain stable and, to achieve this, we call upon the government to extend its furlough scheme and sustain it during this period.”
Prime Minister Johnson’s weekend announcement was seen by many as a knee-jerk reaction. The corporate travel sector finds itself caught between the government’s efforts to combat some of the highest coronavirus numbers Europe has seen to date, and its role to help revive the economy.