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Pilots call for winter resilience fund as new travel rules ‘shatter’ consumer travel confidence

UK pilots want to see a winter resilience fund set up to support the sector in the face of fresh restrictions being imposed due to the Omicron Covid variant.

Governments are also being urged to work together to adopt a “pragmatic” response to the emergence of Omicron.

The call came from airports organisation ACI World as rules changed with the reintroduction of mandatory PCR tests for arrivals into the UK from 4am today (Tuesday).

This followed flight and travel restrictions imposed on a group of southern African countries while other nations banned international arrivals or imposed stricter regulations on foreign visitors.

Tunisia is the latest country to impose stricter entry rules, requiring all travellers over the age of six to take a PCR test less than 48 hours before travel and carry dated evidence of a negative result from December 1. Mandatory quarantine will be extended from seven to ten days for those not fully vaccinated.

Pilots union Balpa warned that the latest changes have “shattered the fledgling confidence in air travel including for Christmas and new year bookings”.

General secretary Martin Chalk said: “Border restrictions have not stopped previous waves of virus, not here or elsewhere, so there is no reason to suggest they will now.

“We call again on government to act with the data and to support a vital UK industry. This includes government funding the expensive PCR tests and actually sequencing traveller’s tests so we can have an effective and data driven policy.

“The aviation industry now needs a winter resilience fund to support us through an even more extended period of restrictions.

“Vital aviation industry skills, including those of pilots, will carry the ambitions of the whole country as we recover. Government must invest in the recovery now.”

Trailfinders urged the government to allow NHS testing capacity to be used “rather than forcing returning travellers to isolate while the private testing companies switch back to PCR”.

The travel group said in response to the return of day 2 tests: “The travel industry has been hit harder than any other over the last 20 months and this will give a modicum of succour to an under supported industry.

“This also has the positive and popular effect of saving the public from isolating at home and enables them to get back to work. Not everyone is able to work from home.”

The Business Travel Association called on the government to introduce legislation compelling its Covid-19 testing providers to refund or upgrade lateral flow to PCR tests for travellers returning to the UK.

“Going forward, we need greater capacity for rapid-PCR testing (maximum 3-hour turnaround) at all UK ports to keep businesses travelling safely,” the association said.

“For this to be viable for SMEs, the life blood of this country, there must be a cap in pricing at £55.”

Liz Mathews, general manager of Flight Centre UK, urged the government to “review its stance immediately if the threat is lowered to enable the travel industry to continue its road to recovery”.

But she said she understood the government’s move to bring back PCR tests “as we are yet to experience the full impact from the new Omicron variant”.

However, she said: “We would remind travellers the test can be taken on or before day two of arrival into the UK; in theory, if a traveller booked a test in the airport as they arrive at their holiday destination, the home quarantine window would be much shorter.

“These tests typically have a turnaround window of 24-48 hours, thus shortening the stay-at-home period for travellers. Our partners are looking at how they can shorten this window as we speak, for a full list of our recommended providers, please see here.

Mathews said Flight Centre is supporting customers in destination and those due to travel, and added: “As always through this pandemic, we would always recommend people book with a travel agent.”

Consumer group Which? warned that travellers have previously been badly let down by a “dysfunctional” PCR testing market that left them exposed to extortionate prices and unreliable providers.

Travel editor Rory Boland reiterated the need for action from the competition watchdog the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

He said: “The government’s official list of PCR test providers is still rife with companies promoting misleading prices and we are yet to see any meaningful action from the CMA’s audit of the private testing system.

“Now that the government has taken the decision to reintroduce mandatory PCR tests, it must swiftly implement the CMA’s recommendations for private testing and ensure safe, reliable and affordable tests are available for all travellers.

“In the meantime, we urge those thinking of travelling to only book with providers that have a good record of providing test kits and processing results on time.”

Ian Bell, head of travel and tourism at audit, tax and consulting firm RSM, warned: “A blow to consumer confidence just before the peak booking season in January could be the final straw for many travel businesses that have been remarkably resilient, with the help of government support, in unprecedented conditions.

“However, many travel operators will have nothing left in the tank and without urgent tailored support we could see significant business distress across the sector if restrictions stay in place into the new year.

“Understandably the government has to move quickly to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant, but it also needs to recognise the knock-on effect and mayhem this causes for an already strained travel sector.

“As the majority of government Covid support has ended, the travel sector needs tailored financial support to help vulnerable businesses and prevent business closures, high unemployment and longer-term pressure on international connectivity at a time when the UK wants to be more outward focused following Brexit. This could be as simple as bearing the cost of the PCR testing for all inbound travellers, or specific grants for businesses within the travel sector.”

ACI World director general Luis Felipe de Oliveira said: “While public health remains the utmost priority, we call upon governments to co-ordinate to implement pragmatic and risk-based measures based on science.

“Furthermore, we continue to urge countries to work closely with aviation stakeholders – including airports and airlines – prior to and during the implementation of travel measures to facilitate a more efficient application.”

He added: “This situation is another reminder of the urgent need for countries to adopt interoperable digital health credentials for testing and vaccination that are mutually recognised across borders. This will allow countries to better manage their travel measures and adapt to the evolving health situation.

“The entire aviation ecosystem needs to work together with governments to ensure a safe resumption of travel – one that can be sustained to enable the rebuilding of livelihoods, countries and economies.

“Co-ordination and collaboration will be key to achieving this. Full travel bans and border closures are not an ongoing solution as variants emerge.”

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