Theresa May attacked the government’s “chaotic” approach to foreign travel yesterday as she warned that Britain had shut its doors to the world even though it had one of the most advanced vaccination programmes.
In an outspoken intervention, the former prime minister said the government had failed to deliver on repeated promises to broker international agreements on safe travel. She said the UK had “gone backwards” by reducing the number of countries that people can visit even though most adults had now been fully vaccinated.
May criticised as “mixed messaging” the lifting of a ban on overseas leisure travel only for ministers to advise against travel to “amber” countries — the overwhelming majority.
Chris Grayling, the former transport secretary, Huw Merriman, Tory chairman of the transport committee, and Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, also rounded on the government, amid speculation that the green list would not be expanded until the end of next month at the earliest.
May’s intervention came as British Airways prepared to put thousands of staff on full-time furlough and thousands on reduced hours in the latest setback for aviation markets.
BA employees were briefed on the plans just hours after Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, was lobbied by UK airlines to extend his furlough support for the crippled sector beyond September.
The decision to send many of its 30,000-strong workforce home, indefinitely, from Monday follows BA’s decision to axe 10,000 workers last year.
It is understood the final straw for the airline was the removal of Portugal from the travel green list.
One industry source said the timing of BA’s decision would embarrass the government as world leaders meet in Cornwall to discuss, among other things, how economies could recover from the pandemic.
BA declined to reveal the number of staff on furlough but said they were not in safety roles. The government needed to follow “its risk-based framework to reopen international travel as soon as possible, putting more low-risk countries, like the US, on its green list”, the airline said. Sources said the wholesale furloughing would include pilots and cabin crew, ground staff and people in head office, but those in safety or operation-critical roles were exempt.
Unite, the trade union, which has been at loggerheads with BA management for years, said the move was “a direct consequence of the government’s lack of transparency and its decision-making process with regards to the travel industry”.
Oliver Richardson, the union’s aviation officer, said: “While the rest of the UK’s industry is reducing the use of furlough and getting back to work, the aviation sector is being forced to move in the entirely opposite direction.”
BA said its summer flight schedules were in the hands of ministers and the lifting of travel restrictions and/or the introduction of safe-travel protocols.
Its parent company, International Consolidated Airlines (IAG), which includes Iberia of Spain and Aer Lingus of Ireland, has said it is burning through €200 million a month. In the first quarter of the year group losses were more than €1 billion, following losses of €7.4 billion in 2020. BA is its largest unit by a long way.