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Government criticised for lack of preparation for variant of concern

The trade fears current travel restrictions will remain in place into the new year and hit out at the government for not having a plan to deal with a ‘variant of concern’.

Ministers reimposed pre-departure tests for all UK-bound passengers over the age of 12 from Tuesday and added Nigeria to its red list from Monday.

The government acted after a growing number of countries imposed pre-departure tests to combat the Omicron Covid-19 variant, insisting: “These are temporary measures.”

A leading airline source close to talks said: “They’ve had 20 months to plan for a new variant. A plan should have been prepared and shared with the industry. That is not the case. The scenarios have just not been there.”

Abta labelled it “a huge blow to an already devastated industry”. Business Travel Association chief executive Clive Wratten called it “a hammer blow”, British Airways chief executive Sean Doyle “a devastating blow” and Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association president Joanne Dooey “a crushing blow”.

The source said: “We could see the situation deteriorating but hoped the health secretary’s pragmatism might hold. The pre-departure test is unpopular because of the risk you can be stuck [overseas] with a positive test. But pre-departure tests have been widely adopted because of the variant and the government was under pressure to go down that route.

“So the rules changed again a week after changing. It’s beyond challenging to accommodate the changes and communicate them. Other countries have introduced arrival tests, so it’s a double test for everyone and we’re back to square one. Nothing the industry submitted got a look in. The situation is so fast‑moving, who knows where we’ll be by next week?”

A second source told Travel Weekly: “We’re seeing 20% no shows for some airlines and at some airports and cancellations already for January and February. The risk of getting stuck abroad is the problem. We can’t have this in place a moment longer than necessary.”

The announcement of the latest restrictions came after transport secretary Grant Shapps ruled out pre-departure tests for travellers entering the UK, saying: “Do you want to kill off the travel sector again without knowing that you need to? This government thinks we should take a calibrated response.”

The test before returning to the UK must be taken “as close as possible to departure and not more than 48 hours before”. The results won’t be added to Passenger Locator Forms, but be checked by airlines on boarding. Passengers taking a multi-leg flight need only take the test in the two days before boarding the first flight.

Health secretary Sajid Javid told MPs on Monday he would update Parliament on the measures “next week”.

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