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Covid-19: Aviation Sector

Volume 806: debated on Monday 5 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of quarantine provisions to address the COVID-19 pandemic on civil aviation; and what measures they plan to take to support the aviation sector.

My Lords, we introduced the right measures at the right time based on scientific evidence. This included early implementation of enhanced monitoring at the UK border to identify symptomatic travellers from high-risk areas and the introduction of international travel corridors in July. The Government have provided an unprecedented package of financial assistance measures that the aviation sector can draw on, which we keep under review.

My Lords, the aviation sector has taken an enormous hit, and there has been a huge drop of confidence in consumer travel. There have been endless discussions between the aviation sector and the Government on introducing testing. Will my noble friend repeat the announcement that the Treasury Chief Secretary made at party conference virtually today that we will introduce testing in very short order, and that there will be one test on landing—on arrival—at an airport and a follow-up test five days later? Nothing short of that will actually boost confidence and allow airlines to really take off again this autumn.

I reassure my noble friend that the Government are taking this issue extremely seriously. We are looking at all potential measures to reduce the length of the quarantine period. A test taken after an appropriate isolation period may be a suitable solution, and at the moment we are actively working through the practicalities and the technicalities to make sure that the solution works.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that 30 other countries have introduced effective testing at airports, while our Government have struggled and failed? Taken together with thousands of elderly people dying needlessly in care homes and the massive failure of test and trace, does this not point to serial incompetence by this Government?

I hate to disappoint the noble Lord, but various countries have taken different approaches to testing on arrival. Indeed, many countries do no testing at all on arrival from other countries. However, the Government look very carefully at what other countries are doing; where it is appropriate and where there is evidence to support the measures that they are taking, we look carefully at introducing them here.

My Lords, airports are vital local employers and under severe pressure. Unlike airlines, they cannot just shut down services and have to remain operational for safety reasons, but they have very few paying customers and commercial flights. I ask the Minister again: will the Government just get on with it? Will they give them tailored support by cancelling business rates, which cost even small airports millions of pounds a year?

My Lords, the Chancellor recently announced the winter economic plan, which included extensions or adjustments to support for the sector which is already in place, so the Job Support Scheme comes online on 1 November and there is extension to the loan schemes. There are plenty of ways that airports can get support, and in the very final instance they could look at the Birch process but, of course, in those circumstances all other potential sources of finance must have been exhausted.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register. Bearing in mind the need to keep the pool of pilots currently being made redundant available for the future upturn, and bearing in mind the need for their qualifications to remain current, could the Minister tell me whether discussions her department has been having with interested parties are likely to include a sympathetic view of the need for flexibility in ensuring that measures are put in place to maintain the qualifications of pilots, including the possibility of retraining grants?

My Lords, in conjunction with my department, the CAA has issued a number of regulatory exemptions to help support pilots through the Covid-19 period. These exemptions provide an extension to the standard validity period of licences and ratings, but subject to some conditions. Alongside this, of course, we are looking at the recovery phase for the sector and are doing a lot of work in this area. One of the workstreams for the recovery phase is skills and workforce, and we will bear in mind what my noble friend had to say.

I now call the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames. Lord Eames? Lord Eames, for the third time? I think I will move on, in the interests of time. I call the noble Lord, Lord Rosser.

Key asks from the airline industry are the implementation of testing for passengers arriving from high-risk destinations—not least New York—greater transparency on the Government’s methodology for determining travel corridors and restrictions, a temporary 12-month waiver of APD and the regionalisation of travel corridors, as I am sure the Minister knows. How many of those do the Government intend to agree to?

First, I wish the noble Lord a happy birthday. The Government are taking all those key asks that he refers to extremely seriously. As he will know, very early in the process—in May—we set up the aviation restart and recovery expert steering group, which gave us an enormous insight into the amount of support and the sorts of things we could do for aviation. That has now moved on to become a recovery-only sort of group, looking at longer-term policy thinking, including regional connectivity, economic growth, skills and workforce and decarbonisation. We are well aware of all the issues that he raises, and we are working with the industry to do what we can.

I now call the noble Lord, Lord McNally. There is no Lord McNally, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge.

My Lords, the Minister will perhaps know that the only good thing to have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a welcome reduction in air traffic noise and air pollution around Heathrow Airport. Can she assure us that, whatever the outcome of the appeal by Heathrow to the Supreme Court, if work is ever resumed on a third runway the original air pollution, noise and traffic conditions will still apply?

My Lords, the construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport is a private enterprise and all the current planning restrictions would continue to apply.

My Lords, in a reply to me on 2 July at col. 1283, my noble friend told me that the Government were working very closely with UK-based aviation providers and others to establish international standards for getting our planes back into the air. Precisely what discussions have taken place and what has been achieved in practical terms on the ground and in the air in the past three months? Secondly, have the Government made any estimate of the number of jobs at risk in aviation itself, airports, aerospace, their suppliers and the communities around them if flights are not enabled to return to some sort of normality very soon?

Turning to my noble friend’s second point first, there will inevitably be redundancies within the aviation sector. That is of course hugely regrettable and, while public health remains our top priority, we are committed to enabling a sustainable and responsible return to international travel as soon as we possibly can. In terms of our work with other countries and the international aviation community, our conversations with others have fed into the guidance that we have issued for aviation for journey planning, social distancing, cleaning, face coverings, PPE—all those sorts of requirements. The UK is also playing a leading role at ICAO in the ICAO Aviation Recovery Taskforce.

My Lords, given that the pandemic is not going away and airlines will therefore be in trouble, they will probably require bailouts. Will the Government agree with the recommendation by the Committee on Climate Change and commit to a net zero goal for UK aviation as part of the forthcoming aviation consultation and strategy, as well as the principle that the aviation sector should not receive bailouts without setting individual net zero targets and careful plans as to how they are to achieve that?

My Lords, the Government are doing an enormous amount of work with the aviation sector. We have set up the Jet Zero Council, which is working towards making sure that aviation is able to play its part to ensure that we get to net zero by 2050. As the noble Baroness pointed out, some companies may in future approach the Government for specific help. As I noted earlier, there is the Birch process to go through, but that can be used only if all other sources have been exhausted and there may well indeed be certain conditions attached.

I am pleased to tell my noble friend that I have been through four airports over the past couple of weeks and it has all gone remarkably smoothly, except with some slight, inevitable confusion with the passenger locator form—a very useful tool but in its infancy. It is a compulsory requirement, as I understand it, but you are not necessarily required to present it at the arrival airport. Can my noble friend tell me what percentage of passengers are required to show their passenger locator form, and can she give the number of passengers who have recently shown positive Covid tests?

I am very pleased that my noble friend is doing his part to keep the aviation industry afloat. The passenger locator form is a requirement for every person arriving in this country. On 9 September, the Prime Minister announced that there were plans to simplify, shorten and streamline the whole process. Border Force does spot checks on arrival to make sure that people have filled out the passenger locator form, and they are liable for fines if they have not.

Sitting suspended.