Comment: We need a robust plan for future variants

Government must present a long-term plan for the sector, says Abta director of public affairs Luke Petherbridge

Yesterday, alongside confirming the removal of many domestic Covid restrictions, the prime minister confirmed that the government is reviewing the testing requirements for travel and that the health secretary is due to update on these in the next few days.

We’ve already had some early good news on this front this year.

The removal, for vaccinated travellers, of pre-departure tests and self-isolation, as well as the shift from PCR to lateral flow day two tests, was hugely welcome, particularly as the changes came in time for the peak booking period.

The industry, including Abta, was united in calling for the urgent removal of those temporary testing measures, and it is positive that the government has shown it is listening to us.

However, now we need ministers to go further, by removing all testing for vaccinated individuals.

Day two testing for all travellers is out of step with the approach taken by most other countries, and it is hard to see what the purpose is of these tests now in terms of managing the pandemic in the UK.

It is not just testing that needs to be addressed. The reality is, unlike any other sector of the UK economy, there has still not been a time since the start of the pandemic where travel hasn’t been subject to some sort of restriction or requirement that didn’t exist prior to March 2020.

The government keeps saying it wants the industry to trade its way out of the crisis. To do this we need ministers to bring forward a plan which provides much-needed stability for the industry, allowing consumers to rebuild their confidence in travel.

At the end of last year, Abta put forward its submission to the strategic review of travel – outlining the areas we think the government needs to address to support the industry’s recovery, and we have continued to raise these issues with ministers and government officials since.

There clearly needs to be a robust plan for future variants to avoid the knee-jerk response we witnessed with Omicron, which resulted in a layering of restrictions in response to political pressure.

Pre-departure tests, in particular, brought travel to a complete halt, and it is unsustainable that this can be allowed to happen every time a new variant emerges.

Abta believes there is an important role still for the red list – used sparingly, and in a targeted manner. However, the government should consider ending the Managed Quarantine Service, instead replacing it with a requirement to self-isolate at home.

The cost and disruption caused by a country going on the red list not only has a significant impact on people traveling to those countries but does untold damage to consumer confidence. It is also abundantly clear that the system could not cope if a larger country, which receives high volumes of UK visitors, were ever to be red-listed. Again, thinking about the need for stability and certainty, we need to see policies put in place that work in the longer-term, so this is the right time to change approach.

Meanwhile, the paperwork required to travel to the UK – specifically the Passenger Locator Form (PLF) – is overly complex and acts as a deterrent to travel for some, particularly those who are less confident with technology.

A comparison with other European countries shows the UK collects far more data than is necessary for public health reasons, and Abta is asking for the system to be simplified and streamlined.

Other issues we have flagged include the need to be able to provide evidence for recent previous infection, which can cause people to produce erroneous test results even once they are no longer infectious, and a simplified pathway for non-vaccinated travellers.

Abta has also stressed the importance of coordination between all four nations across the UK, and the need for UK ministers to play a proactive role in leading international efforts to align Covid-19 related travel rules.

Hopefully the upcoming announcement from the health secretary will bring more reasons for cheer.

Whatever the outcome, Abta will continue to work closely with trade bodies across the aviation, travel, and tourism industries, including our colleagues within the Save Future Travel Coalition, to make the case for the industry over the weeks and months ahead.

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