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Coronavirus: DUP's Gavin Robinson calls for clear guidance on air travel and extension to jobs scheme

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Pictures taken on Aer Lingus’ Belfast-London flight yesterday morning and
posted on Twitter by the BBC’s Kelly Bonner

Pictures taken on Aer Lingus’ Belfast-London flight yesterday morning and posted on Twitter by the BBC’s Kelly Bonner

Pictures taken on Aer Lingus’ Belfast-London flight yesterday morning and posted on Twitter by the BBC’s Kelly Bonner

DUP MP Gavin Robinson has called on the government to implement clear guidance on the use of air travel and other forms of public transport after images emerged of a packed flight between Belfast and London Healthrow on Monday morning.

The East Belfast MP said airlines and individual passengers also have responsibility for their personal safety as some restrictions look set to be eased.

Aer Lingus carried out a review following the incident and on Tuesday evening announced it was adding an extra flight to the route and making changes to boarding procedures.

Mr Robinson said he was shocked to see no one appeared to be wearing gloves or masks on the flight and said he would have felt "uncomfortable" sitting on the plane.

But he said fundamental questions had to be asked about what steps need to be taken to ensure personal health and safety when in close proximity with others.

"I'm not aware of any clear guidance from government, either the Department of Infrastructure here in Northern Ireland or indeed nationally about air travel," he told BBC's Good Morning Ulster.

Mr Robinson said people whose employers were still operating will need to satisfy their contracts of employment, which may involve travel.

"If they don't, they will be in a very precarious position," he said.

A Department for Infrastructure spokesperson said the department is not responsible for air travel advice.

"Aviation matters in Northern Ireland, including airline safety, are the responsibility of central UK Government’s Department for Transport (DfT) which has issued advice and guidance to all UK airports and airlines in response to the COVID-19 crisis," the spokesperson said.

The chief executive of Belfast City Airport, Brian Ambrose, has said it was working "around the clock" to make it as safe as possible for travellers.

Mr Ambrose said Monday saw the first big influx of passengers since the virus outbreak, with 154 on the flight.

He told the BBC's Stephen Nolan Show: "Measures yesterday were not up to our usual standards. The people at the airport will not be found wanting to find solutions."

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley raised the matter in the Commons on Wednesday. He asked Business Minister Paul Scully what guidelines the government would put in place to protect workers.

Speaking from Northern Ireland, he asked: "Can the minister tell us what guidelines he will put in place and the government put in place to assist necessary workers and passengers travelling from Northern Ireland to London on airlines?

"What assistance will he put in place to air operators taking and making necessary flights to ensure there is the necessary guidelines and protections in place for those workers?"

In response, Mr Scully said from Westminster: "In part of giving confidence to people returning to work, clearly it's also important to be able to give the confidence to travel to and from the various parts of the UK to work as well.

"That's why this process will also look at transport, it will look at opening of schools and these kind of things when the health guidance is suitably appropriate."

This week, Aer Lingus advised all customers due to travel on an extra route to give themselves additional time to check in, as changes to the boarding procedure will be introduced and more luggage will be checked into the hold.

"In order to reduce the operational pressure involved in implementing these measures, Aer Lingus is putting on an additional flight frequency on each day of operation of the service," said the airline.

"The two services will depart at 0845 and 0945 on each day of operation. It is expected that this additional frequency will result in reduced loads on each flight.

"The Belfast-London Heathrow service is provided to maintain a vital air link between Belfast and London and to allow critical workers to travel where required.

"The safety and security of Aer Lingus' customers and crew is our number one priority, and these process changes are being implemented as a matter of urgency."

Meanwhile, the DUP raised concerns about a job retention scheme put in place by the Westminster government that is set to end on June 30.

The party has called on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend the scheme until October to assist ground airline staff as well as other sectors.

"If this ends on June 30, it will lead to thousands upon thousands of redundancies in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom," said Mr Robinson.

He said the ending of the scheme in June would have a "cataclysmic outcome" for the economy.

The department for Infrastructure has been asked for a response.

Belfast Telegraph