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Coronavirus: 'Future of UK aviation' at risk, say airlines

The UK's aviation industry may not survive the coronavirus pandemic without emergency financial support, airlines have warned. Trade body Airlines UK has asked the government for a package worth several billion pounds. US travel restrictions will hit all transatlantic routes from Tuesday, further denting the aviation sector. The government said it was open to supporting all businesses, including airlines.

(An empty Heathrow Terminal 5 (European Press Agency)

In a stark message, Airlines UK said the government's "prevarication" and "bean counting" had to stop.

"We're talking about the future of UK aviation - one of our world-class industries - and unless the government pulls itself together who knows what will be left of it once we get out of this mess," it added.

Airline bosses have been talking to ministers, and executives at Virgin Atlantic are due to write to the prime minister.

The demand comes after the US announced it will extend its European travel ban to include the UK and Republic of Ireland. The ban, which will begin at 04:00 GMT on Tuesday, will hit vital routes for the likes of British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Norwegian Air.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will be hit hard by the forthcoming travel ban to the USA

(Heathrow Airport)

The government said in a statement that it recognises the difficulties UK airlines are facing.

"We are engaging with the sector's leadership to support workers, businesses and passengers," it said. "We have influenced the European Commission to relax flight slots and HMRC is ready to help all businesses, including airlines, and self-employed individuals, experiencing temporary financial difficulties due to coronavirus."

Under European law, if flights are not operated, designated take-off and landing slots have to be forfeited.

Last week, Virgin Atlantic confirmed it was forced to operate some near-empty flights after bookings were dented by the outbreak. British Airways warned employees on Friday that the industry was facing a "crisis of global proportions" that was worse than that caused by the SARS virus or 9/11. In a memo titled "The Survival of British Airways", the company's boss Alex Cruz said that it is to ground flights "like never before" and lay off staff.

On Thursday, Norwegian Air said it was set to cancel 4,000 flights and temporarily lay off about half of its staff.

US to extend travel ban to UK and Ireland

The US is to extend its European coronavirus travel ban to include the UK and Republic of Ireland. The ban will begin at midnight EST on Monday (04:00 GMT Tuesday), Vice-President Mike Pence announced. President Trump's travel ban on 26 European countries - members of the Schengen free movement zone - came into force on Saturday.

Mr Pence also announced that free coronavirus testing would be provided for every American. "Now it's all systems go," said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci on efforts to expand testing.

Speaking at the same news conference, President Trump said he had been tested himself. The White House later said that the test was negative.

The US has confirmed 51 deaths linked to the pandemic and 2,488 infections.

In the first six weeks of vetting for the virus at US, 17 travellers were placed under quarantine at medical facilities, a senior official at the US Department of Homeland Security told Reuters news agency. During that period, more than 30,000 travellers were also asked to self-quarantine at home.

More than 132,500 people have now been diagnosed in 123 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It says Europe is now the epicentre for the virus, which originated in China.

Following Italy's lead, Spain is poised to declare a 15-day national lockdown on Monday to battle the virus.

How is the US travel ban being extended?

As of Saturday morning, the US had already suspended travel for 30 days from 26 Schengen countries - 22 European Union members and four non-EU.

They are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The travel ban was met with anger and confusion in the EU, with leaders accusing President Trump of making the decision "without consultation". The UK and Ireland had been exempt but Mr Trump said on Saturday: "They've had a little bit of activity, unfortunately."

The total number of confirmed cases in the UK has reached 1,140, with 21 deaths - up from 11 on Friday.

Mr Pence explained that American citizens and legal residents could still return.

Such people would be "funnelled through specific airports and processed", he said.

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