Foreign business leaders will no longer need to quarantine when arriving in England if their trip is likely to have a significant economic benefit to the UK, the government has announced.
The exemption will be for arrivals from amber-list countries, and only given in exceptional circumstances, the Department for Business (BEIS) said.
Some business groups and MPs expressed anger as it excludes smaller companies.
But BEIS said it would balance economic interests with public safety.
Some critics said it should include all business travel and key workers. Labour’s Angela Rayner and Manchester’s Labour Mayor, Andy Burnham, said it smacked of one rule for the rich and one for the rest.
Craig Beaumont, for the Federation of Small Business, said: “Small business owners and the self-employed often travel for their business, and it is wrong to declare this activity as of no significant economic benefit – and so outside of the government’s plans.
“There should not be a fast lane of easements for big business while small firms are left behind.”
Tej Parikh, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, said: “Medium-sized enterprises will be the powerhouses of our economic recovery, so initiatives that effectively lower quarantine requirements for executives in large businesses seem arbitrary.”
Mr Parikh stressed that it was “vital that the government does not overlook the crucial importance of helping SME business leaders getting back up and running by focusing purely on multinationals”.
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls agreed, telling the BBC this exemption needed to be “expanded for broader business travel, including hospitality workers abroad who are currently unable to return to the UK due to the cost and hassle of current quarantine requirements”.
500 jobs benchmark
The plans follow disquiet at perceived double standards for influential guests and dignitaries after sponsors and officials from Uefa and Fifa were allowed into the UK for Euro 2020 without having to quarantine.
The exemption is for executives wishing to travel to England to make a “financial investment in a UK-based business” or for “establishing a new business within the UK”.
BEIS said: “This exemption is designed to enable activity that creates and preserves UK jobs and investment, while taking steps to ensure public health risks are minimised.”
The prime minister’s official spokesman added: “Protecting public health is our number one priority and that’s why those exemptions will only apply in truly exceptional circumstances.”
Business leaders will not qualify for an exemption if the activities can be carried out remotely via telephone or email, or by another person. “Routine meetings” and “speculative sales pitches” will not qualify.
“Significant economic benefit” is considered to be having a greater than 50% chance of creating or preserving at least 500 UK-based jobs, or creating a new UK business within two years, BEIS said.
Ms Rayner said: “It is the lowest-paid working people who have got our country through this crisis, risking their lives on the front line.
“Yet again it is one rule for those at the top and another for everyone else.”
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said it was the “wrong move at the wrong time”.
“It can’t be one rule for the rich and another for the rest,” he added.
Business leaders visiting England will need to take a Covid-19 test, take further tests on arrival and tell the government they intend to use the exemption, before getting a letter of confirmation.
Bosses hoping to use the loophole to attend a routine board meeting will be disappointed, although a meeting to make a decision on whether to invest in a new UK division could be accepted.
As with the quarantine exemption for seasonal workers, the business leaders will need to self-isolate whenever they are not conducting the exempt business activity.
Travellers from red list countries are not exempt.
Business leaders have been primarily carrying out activities remotely during much of the pandemic.
But airlines have been pushing hard for restrictions to ease, because sales of business-class and first-class seats – which generate the biggest profits – have plunged as companies adopt remote working.
A spokesperson from ABTA, the travel association, told the BBC that while this was a “step forward”, the roles and activities involved were “limited, and this will not be not be sufficient to bring about a meaningful recovery in business travel”.
Matthew Fell, UK policy director for the CBI business lobby group, told the BBC the measure was a “welcome step towards taking the pragmatic and truly risk-based approach needed for business travellers in the coming months”.