What is an air bridge and why is the government considering them?

Greg Dickinson
The UK could form 'air bridges' with other countries - Getty

Hopes of a summer holiday have been revived after the Government announced it is considering 'air bridges' as a way of kickstarting international travel. So what is an air bridge? When will they come in? And where are the likely candidates?

The Government has given fresh hopes of an international summer holiday, confirming they are considering bilateral travel agreements – or 'air bridges' – with countries that have a similar Covid-19 infection rate.

In a statement, Number 10 said: "The Government will continue to look at further options as we move forward and these will include air bridges – agreements between countries who both have low transmission rates to recognise each other’s departure screening measures for passengers and removing the need for quarantine measures for incoming passengers."

This comes as the government confirmed that, as of June 8, anyone arriving in the UK will have to self-isolate for 14 days, regardless of symptoms.

Travellers, including people returning home to the UK, will submit the address that they will be staying at on arrival at UK airports and ports. Police will then be given powers to spot-check homes and issue £1,000 fines for anyone not observing the rules. it is believed up to 100 homes would be checked per day.

It is now over two months since the Foreign Office warned British nationals not to travel abroad unless it is essential, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

International summer holidays were beginning to look like they would be off the cards, after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said “summer is essentially cancelled" and the details of the two-week quarantine loomed.

However, as the UK’s lockdown measures ease, and countries across the European Union, such as Greece and Italy, give border opening dates, there have been glimmers of hope that a summer holiday abroad could still happen in 2020.

The biggest indication that we might yet salvage our summer holiday came last week when the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced plans to create “air bridges” with other nations, effectively exempting certain countries from a 14-day quarantine on arrival into the UK. Last week's Number 10 announcement formally confirms this for the first time.

So what is an air bridge? When could they come in? And where will we be able to travel to?

What is an “air bridge”

We have heard about travel “bubbles” – agreements between a closed bloc of countries, such as the Baltics, or Australia and New Zealand, and we have heard about travel “corridors” – overland routes into certain countries, like Croatia, through border agreements. But what is an “air bridge”?

It seems like an air bridge will effectively mean a bilateral travel link between the UK and another country, allowing quarantine immunity. The agreement would, we can only assume, by necessity involve a lifting of the FCO travel advisory for that destination.

When does the quarantine start, and are any countries exempt?

Anyone (including Britons coming back in the UK) will be subject to a 14-day quarantine when arriving in the UK by plane, ferry or train. This will come into force as of June 8.

Only people travelling from the common travel areas including Ireland, Guernsey, the Channel Isles and the Isle of Man will be exempt, along with a very limited group of up to 30 professions or jobs, including freight drivers and medical professionals.

Originally, it was hinted that France could be exempted from a 14-day quarantine, but the government later confirmed that was not the case.

However, this latest “air bridge” announcement gives hope that people arriving from certain countries (including, once again, France), plus Britons returning from holiday, may not have to follow the strict quarantine measure; it has been suggested that anyone who breaks the quarantine could be subject to a fine of £1,000.

The first suggestion of "‘air bridges", made by Grant Shapps earlier this week, sparked cautious optimism across the travel industry, including from travel trade association ABTA. AITO, however, issued a more critical response to the announcement: “Our fingers have been badly burnt by earlier off-the-cuff comments by Mr Shapps, and this Government, unfortunately, has a record of making grand statements only to retract or change them substantially a day or so later,” said Director of AITO Noel Josephides.

When will the air bridges be introduced?

We don’t know. The 14-day quarantine will be introduced on June 8, and a number of airlines and holiday companies have been looking at June or July as a date for when operations could resume. But to put a date on when a first UK air bridge would launch – and with which country – is a matter of educated guesswork. 

One early air bridge could be with the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands have been selected for a pilot scheme in collaboration with the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), which will involve visitors downloading a health passport – called the Hi+ Card – and a track-and-trace app on arrival. A Canary Islands tourism chief told the Telegraph that the Canaries are working hard to reopen this summer, and that they hope to open up to the UK as soon as possible. Due to the low infection rate on the Canaries, it could be a prime candidate for an air bridge.

Wondering where else we might be forming an air bridge with? See this article for the chances of the UK forming a travel agreement with France, Italy, Spain, Greece or Portugal.