British Airways has become the world’s first major airline to scrap masks on flights.
The flag carrier says that from Wednesday, face coverings will only be required when a destination has its own “restrictions and legal requirements”, such as in the United States.
Virgin Atlantic also said it would gradually ease its rules, starting with flights to the Caribbean from Heathrow and Manchester.
The news came hours after Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said ministers had decided to scrap all remaining travel rules from 4am on Friday.
Arrivals into the UK will no longer need to complete a passenger locator form or take any tests, irrespective of vaccination status. The move means the UK will have no coronavirus restrictions whatsoever for the first time in two years.
Heathrow, the UK’s largest airport, will also ditch rules on masks, although the airport “strongly encourages” passengers to continue wearing a face covering, especially when coming into close contact with others.
Jason Mahoney, BA’s chief operating officer, said: “As an international airline we fly to a large number of countries around the world, all of which have their own local restrictions and legal requirements.
“We’re working through these and from Wednesday, March 16, customers will only be required to wear a face covering on board our flights if the destination they’re travelling to requires it. For destinations where the wearing of a face covering is not mandated, our customers are able to make a personal choice.”
BA is expected to clarify exactly how its new policy will work and how passengers will be informed of rules.
Last week President Biden extended the US federal mandate requiring masks on public transport for another month, until at least April 18.
Corneel Koster, the chief operating officer at Virgin Atlantic, said: “As we learn to live with Covid and with the legal requirement to wear a face mask now removed in England, we believe our customers should have the personal choice whether to wear a mask on board, on routes where international regulations around mask-wearing do not apply.
“Across our network, we continue to adhere to all regulatory requirements both in the UK and in destination countries, recognising that mask requirements differ by market.
“This policy will be introduced gradually, beginning with our Caribbean services from Heathrow and Manchester airports.”
Tui Airways, the airline of the UK’s biggest tour operator, said it was scrapping masks last week. The budget airline Jet2 changed its policy on March 1.
Rules on masks at airports vary. The Department for Transport says operators are free to set their own rules, although more regional airports are expected to follow Heathrow’s lead.
Emma Gilthorpe, chief operating officer at Heathrow, said: “We’re gearing up for a busy summer travel season, and this change means we can look forward to welcoming our passengers back with a smile as we get them safely away on their journeys.”
Both Scotland and Wales will follow England in scrapping all travel forms and tests, albeit grudgingly.
Eluned Morgan, the Welsh health minister, said she was “extremely disappointed” with the decision but that the “significant practical difficulties associated with diverging” from England had left Wales with no choice but to follow suit.
The Scottish government added that it had “reluctantly agreed” to align with England to protect its tourism industry.
Grant Shapps said that the UK would take the “least stringent possible measures” and avoid border restrictions should another Covid variant emerge. Speaking in the Commons, he ruled out a return to quarantine hotels and the red list as the government’s “default approach” to changes in the pandemic.
He said: “Even if another variant of concern emerges, next time we will react differently. We’ve learnt a lot during this pandemic and we will use that experience to respond in more measured ways, and in more flexible ways.
“For example, whilst quarantine hotels were appropriate for red list arrivals at an earlier stage of the pandemic, we’re now standing down the remaining capacity.”