Manchester Airports Group and Ryanair launch legal challenge over UK government's travel 'traffic light' system

Manchester Airports Group (MAG) and Ryanair have joined forces to bring legal challenge to seek transparency in how the Government categorises countries as green, amber or red Credit: PA Images

The UK's largest airport group which owns Manchester Airport, has joined forces with Ryanair, to launch a legal challenge against the government over the controversial traffic-light travel system.

The move by Manchester Airports Group (MAG), which also runs Stansted and East Midlands airports, and the Irish airline, is said to be backed by several other major UK carriers.

MAG and Ryanair want the government to explain how decisions, which dramatically affect their businesses, are made and are calling for greater transparency in how the Government categorises countries as green, amber or red.

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps will be named as defendants in the court action.

Portugal was the only viable major tourist destination on the green list Credit: Nick Ansell/PA

The 'traffic light' system came into force in May but has been described as 'not fit for purpose' by the group's chief executive.

At the time, the Department for Transport said assessments would be based on a range of factors, including the proportion of a population that had been vaccinated, rates of infection, emerging new variants, and access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing.

But the movement of Portugal from green to amber led to accusations that decisions are being based on political rather than public health motives.

There are no major viable tourist destinations on the quarantine-free green list, with the most popular countries in the amber tier.

People returning to the UK from an amber country must self-isolate at home for 10 days, take a pre-departure test and two post-arrival tests.

What MAG and Ryanair are calling on the government for:

  • to publish the Covid-19 prevalence thresholds it uses to determine whether destinations are classed as red, amber or green, as well as any other criteria, advice or information that informs its decision-making.

  • to make decisions in a clear and transparent way

Charlie Cornish, MAG CEO, said: “The whole travel sector recognises the critical importance of protecting public health, and we have facilitated every measure the government has required in response to Covid-19.

“That is why we originally welcomed the Global Travel Taskforce’s traffic light system, which the Government said would be based on a ‘a clear and consistent evidence-based approach to facilitate the safe, sustainable and robust return of international travel.’

“However, recent developments suggest that the Government is now unwilling to open up international travel by putting low risk countries on the green list.

For most countries, the traffic light seems to be stuck on amber for no obvious reason, despite having prevalence rates much lower than the UK.

“The Government is not being open and we simply cannot understand how it is making decisions that are fundamental to our ability to plan, and to giving customers the confidence to book travel ahead.

“These issues must be resolved urgently - and ahead of the review point later this month - to allow everyone to understand how the system operates, and to create the opportunity for international travel to resume to the fullest extent possible over the summer.”

Ryanair have launched the legal challenge with MAG, saying the system has been a 'complete shambles' Credit: PA Images

While the Judicial Review is being led by MAG and Ryanair, it's understood a number of other airline partners are supporting the challenge, reflecting the widespread discontent within the travel industry at the way the issue is being handled.

In a Statement of Fact and Grounds document lodged with the Court, the parties challenge the Government’s lack of transparency, particularly around the lack of clear reasoning given for moving Portugal from the green list to the amber list and its decision not to move any amber list countries to the green list.

Lawyers for the claimants say many countries have prevalence rates lower than Portugal when it was classed as green and far lower than current rates in the UK, adding the industry had understood the Government would also treat the likes of the Balearic, Canary and Greek Islands differently to their mainlands.

Court papers state:

“No information was provided as to why no country had been moved to the green list. A limited amount of data was provided in relation to Portugal but not explanation or assessment of the data explaining the conclusions drawn or thresholds applied. The scientific advice of the JBC and any advice from the UK medical officers was not provided or even mentioned.”

The document adds: “This lack of clarity in the decision-making process is not marginal but fundamental. Decisions that dramatically affect our client and other industry participants are being made in what amounts to a “black box” with outcomes apparently unrelated to data. As explained above, the outcomes do not allow the Claimant to infer the basis for the decisions being taken and appear aberrant.”

Michael O'Leary, boss of Ryanair, says "this go-stop-go-stop policy is causing untold damage to the aviation industry" Credit: PA Images

Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair Group, said:

“This go-stop-go-stop policy is causing untold damage to the aviation industry andfrustrating and upsetting millions of British families when they see their holiday plans and family visits disrupted by the Government’s mismanagement of international travel.

“We call on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to explain the scientific basis behind this system that the Government seem to make up as they go along and to establish a data-driven transparent model that could restore confidence in air travel ahead of the very crucial peak summer months.”

A government spokesperson said: “We recognise this is a challenging period for the sector, as we seek to balance the timely reopening of international travel while safeguarding public health and protecting the vaccine roll-out.

“Our traffic light system cautiously manages the risk of new variants, and we have provided £7bn to help support for the industry during the pandemic.

“We cannot comment on legal proceedings.”

This comes as the Government confirmed it is considering plans for vaccines to play a role in opening up international travel.

Officials are analysing whether travellers who have had both coronavirus vaccine doses could avoid having to quarantine when they return from amber countries.

This could mean the return of holidays to popular summer hotspots such as Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, which are all currently on the amber list. 

Asked whether the policy would be introduced, Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman said the government is "thinking about all aspects of this" adding it was a "very dynamic evolving situation."

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