British Airways and other airlines are axing summer holiday flights as a health minister raised the prospect that European countries could face a "red list" travel ban.
On Monday, BA confirmed that, in the past week, it has cancelled summer flights across Europe and on UK domestic routes, including in July and August, amid fears there may be only be a handful of countries on the "green list" when foreign travel is due to resume from May 17.
Lord Bethell, a health minister, told the Lords that surging Covid rates in European states, with up to 10 per cent linked to new variants, could require drastic measures.
"We are all aware that the possibility lies that we will have to 'red list' all of our European neighbours," he said.
"But that would be done with huge regret, because we are a trading nation, we do work in partnership with other countries. We depend on other countries for essential supplies, not only medicines, but food and others."
It came as millions were wiped off the share price of airlines and travel firms following Ben Wallace's warning that it was "premature" and "risky" for people to book summer holidays now as the Defence Secretary refused to rule out a possible extension of the travel ban.
IAG, the owner of BA, saw its share price fall by 5.2 per cent, easyJet was down 5.4 per cent, TUI by 4.9 per cent, Wizz Air by 2.1 per cent and Carnival Cruises by 1.4 per cent.
"Airlines and travel operators had seemingly refused to countenance the cataclysmic idea of another heavily disrupted summer and had been busily advertising to an increasingly inoculated UK," Russ Mould, the investment director at AJ Bell told Bloomberg. "The travel sector is waking up on Monday to a dose of reality."
The cancellations by BA and easyJet have provoked anger from travellers, who took to Twitter to complain about the sudden ditching of their flights.
BA is not axing routes but is cutting back flights on some of them, including Amsterdam, Germany, Italy and Sweden, by as much as a quarter.
A BA spokesman said anyone whose flight was cancelled could get a refund, adding: "We are sorry that, like other airlines, due to the current coronavirus pandemic and global travel restrictions we are operating a reduced and dynamic schedule."
Paul Charles, the chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: "Airlines were expecting passengers to be going up over the summer, so added more flights. What they are doing now is starting to prune schedules because they are expecting lower demand."
Boris Johnson's travel taskforce will report on April 12 with plans for a "traffic light" system in which travel to "red list" countries would remain banned, "amber" countries will require quarantine and "green list" destinations are expected to require testing and/or vaccination certificates.
France has been put on a watch list although there is no imminent move to place it on the red list of countries requiring arrivals to spend time in hotel quarantine.
IAG has anticipated demand at just 20 per cent of 2019 levels for the first quarter with flying unlikely to recover fully before 2023-24.