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UK urges Biden to drop coronavirus air travel restrictions

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will urge President Joe Biden to lift US-UK flight restrictions at their first face-to-face meeting since Biden took office, unless Biden does so before then, a top British official warned U.S. diplomats.

According to a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by the PBS NewsHour, Robert Courts, Parliament’s Under Secretary of State at the Department of Transport, requested an “urgent” meeting with the top-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy in London, chargé d’affaires Yael Lempert, on Monday.

“Courts expressed surprise that the United States continues to restrict entry under 212(f) for UK travelers despite Her Majesty’s Government’s [HMG] successful nationwide vaccination campaign and greatly decreased COVID-19 infection and death rates,” the cable read.

He said that London and New York should establish an “airbridge” through which transatlantic travel can be resumed, an idea the airline industry has proposed. He also said he anticipated Johnson would raise the idea, as well urge the lifting of restrictions, with Biden when they meet on the margins of the G7 Summit in Cornwall, England in early June, “if there have been no positive developments by that point.”

The day after the meeting between Courts and Lempert, a coalition of six major US and UK airlines, including American, United, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, wrote a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and UK Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps proposing a summit between the two “to explore a path to safely and expeditiously reopen transatlantic travel in a manner that aligns with public health objectives.”

“Safely reopening borders between the U.S. and the U.K. is essential for the continued economic recovery of both nations,” the airlines wrote. According to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, U.S. trade with the U.K. totaled $273 billion in 2019.

Courts also asked Lempert what benchmarks the UK needed to reach in order to no longer be subjected to the restrictions, which are part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and give the president the ability to suspend the entry of any foreign national he deems detrimental to U.S. interests. Courts stressed the critical business, cultural, family and national security ties between the two countries.

On January 25, Biden issued a proclamation suspending noncitizen travel from most of Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and South Africa. During the meeting, Courts “said HMG was struggling to understand why the UK was grouped with European Union countries, as well as India, Brazil and South Africa, which have had less success addressing COVID-19.”

According to UK government data, 35% of adults are fully vaccinated and deaths and hospitalization rates are dropping.

While the UK’s coronavirus infection numbers might be better than the other countries whose travel is restricted, the picture is made more complicated by the increasing threat of COVID-19 variants there. Along with other dangerous variants, the B.1.617 variant believed to be involved in India’s second wave is now present in the UK, and was recently classified a “variant of concern” by the WHO.

Courts argued that the UK has done a better job of managing the variants than the countries in which they originated, and that the UK is on track to reopen international travel by Monday, May 17.

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