Britain’s three biggest airlines have started legal proceedings against the government in a bid to overturn quarantine rules due to take effect in the UK from Monday.
BA’s owner, IAG, along with Ryanair and EasyJet, have sent a pre-action protocol letter setting out why they believes the moves, which will force air passengers arriving from abroad to self-isolate for 14 days, are illogical and unfair.
Airlines and travel firms have protested in vain against the new Home Office-led regulations, which they have said come months late to stop the transmission of coronavirus and will kill off any nascent recovery in their industries.
The airlines’ letter argues that the quarantine measures are more severe than those applied where the risks are greater, and impose greater restrictions on arrivals than on people infected with Covid-19. The airlines also object that enforcement of the regulations as published appears to apply only to England, and people arriving in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would not face the same penalties. The devolved administrations have yet to set out how they will police the rules.
The letter, the first step in an application for judicial review, was sent on Friday. A Ryanair spokesperson, commenting on behalf of the three airlines, said: “These measures are disproportionate and unfair on British citizens as well as international visitors arriving in the UK. We urge the government to remove this ineffective visitor quarantine which will have a devastating effect on UK’s tourism industry and will destroy even more thousands of jobs in this unprecedented crisis.”
The government has argued that the quarantine rules are science-based and would help limit the risk of a second wave as restrictions on movement are eased.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, said: “We all want to return to normal as quickly as possible. But this cannot be at the expense of lives. The science is clear that if we limit the risk of new cases being brought in from abroad, we can help stop a devastating second wave.
“That is why the measures coming into force today are necessary. They will help control the virus, protect the NHS and save lives.”
Posters spelling out the new requirements for travellers will be displayed at all UK ports and airports. Airlines will be expected to notify passengers of the rules, but not to enforce them.
The director general of Border Force, Paul Lincoln, said officials were “prepared and ready for the new measures which are being enacted at the UK border today”.
The quarantine row comes amid further uproar over BA’s plans to sack about 12,000 staff and lower the terms and conditions of remaining employees.
The pilots union Balpa told members on Saturday the airline had increased the number of pilot redundancies it was seeking by another 125 to almost 1,300, more than a quarter of the workforce.
It warned that BA had said it would “force changes by terminating the employment of all pilots and offering individuals new contracts with associated new terms and conditions” if they could not find agreement.
The airline appears to have made concessions on a possible voluntary redundancy scheme, which it initially ruled out, saying it would pay only the statutory minimum to longserving staff.
BA may also start furloughing senior pilots from the grounded A380 and 747 fleets, who had agreed to effectively halve their pay by taking unpaid leave at the start of the crisis to allow for a possible quick return to flying.
The flag carrier’s actions have been condemned by ministers and unions.
Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, which represents cabin crew, said: “BA and its owners IAG can afford to see out this crisis without such drastic cuts. This is a company with a lot of cash, strong assets and sustainable debt. The company controls some of the most profitable routes in the world and is backed by the Qatar royal family,” a 25% shareholder in IAG.
He pointed out that IAG was about to spend almost €1bn (£870m) on acquiring Air Europa, adding: “Workers in Britain are being sacrificed for the benefit of shareholders.”