The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, claimed in mid-April that airport passenger arrivals into the UK have fallen to as low as 15,000 a day amid the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown. We have been unable to find evidence to support this claim.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) failed to substantiate the claim made by Matt Hanock on ITV’s Good Morning Britain when we asked them.
The Home Office has told Full Fact that it didn’t recognise the figure used by Mr Hancock and believed it was wrong, but wasn’t able to provide any alternative estimates when we asked for them.
When we questioned several government departments about the figures, no one was able to provide an answer for where they came from. The DHSC did not respond to our questions.
Data on how many people are arriving at the UK’s airports is hard to come by. We’ve no reason to dismiss the Health Secretary’s figure out of hand, but until the government can explain why Mr Hancock said what he did, we’ve no good reason to put any weight in the figure he gave either.
Airports have seen a collapse in demand
We spoke to Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester Airports Group and none would provide specific data on daily passenger numbers, with some mentioning this could be commercially sensitive.
It’s possible that Mr Hancock’s figure does use data provided directly by airports.
Anecdotally, it was clear that passenger numbers had fallen to a small fraction of their usual levels.
Heathrow Airport—which usually accounts for over a quarter of all passengers at UK airports—normally sees about 6.5 million passengers in March, but this year that had fallen by over half to three million.
Heathrow has released a forecast saying it expects passenger demand in April to fall by 90% compared to the previous year—which would imply monthly passenger numbers in the region of 680,000, or between 20,000 and 25,000 a day (although some of these will be transfers and departures). This is just telling us about April as a whole, rather than recent days specifically.
There’s nothing concrete enough here to tell us very much about Mr Hancock’s claim, but it seems plausible that his figures resemble the scale of what’s happening.
Who is still travelling and why?
Most airports release passenger data on a monthly basis, so by the middle of next month we’ll have a clearer picture of the overall number of passengers at airports since the start of April.
As for the reasons why, airports told us that passengers were not travelling for holidays, and said flights were still generally open for essential travel for key workers, repatriation flights and cargo.
“All of our terminals remain open on a scaled down basis as we help with the repatriation of British citizens and the transport of vital air cargo. Vital medical equipment and supplies, including ventilators and medicines, as well as food are being flown via Heathrow, helping to combat the impacts of the global pandemic”.
In the absence of this data, there is still some information on the reasons for travel.
The volume of repatriations to the UK alone will have been significant in recent weeks.
On 23 March, when the lockdown began, the government advised all British travellers to return to the UK. To get a sense of the scale of that undertaking, the average number of UK residents on overnight stays abroad on any given day was about 1.6 million (based on the latest data from January to March 2018).
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office confirmed to us that since the outbreak began, it estimates over 1.3 million people have returned to the UK via commercial routes. It said as well as helping to keep air traffic routes open, it has brought back over 13,200 people on 63 flights it has organised, and assisted 19,000 cruise ship passengers’ return.
Cargo flights have alsoincreased to fill some of the gaps left by falls in passenger demand. Heathrow alone says it has seen a 200% increase in cargo-only flights per week.
The Office for National Statistics, which runs the International Passenger Survey, told us it was working on finding alternative sources of data for information on the reasons people are travelling, such as exit checks data gathered by the Home Office or administrative data from the Department for Work and Pensions.
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