The transport secretary has denied making a U-turn in 24 hours after sparking travel trade fury as the government re-introduced pre-departure Covid tests for arrivals into the UK from tomorrow (Tuesday).
The change in a bid to combat the Omicron variant was announced on Saturday afternoon, a day after Grant Shapps gave an assurance that pre-departure testing would not return because he did not want to “kill off the travel sector”.
Facing a bombardment of criticism on social media, he took to Twitter to defend his actions.
It emerged that his comments to a Telegraph podcast had been pre-recorded last Wednesday.
He insisted that additional caution needed to be applied as scientists work to understand the new Omicron variant as health secretary Sajid Javid made Saturday’s announcement on the tightening of restrictions.
Shapps then tweeted: “Worth noting my pre-recorded comments about pre-departure tests were made earlier in the week and the situation moved on.”
Kuoni chief executive Derek Jones replied: “Fair enough…it‘s tough to make all the right calls at the moment.
“But given that you said that pre-departure tests would ‘kill off’ the travel industry, will you now work with [chancellor] Rishi Sunak to secure urgently needed sector specific support?”
An insistence by ministers that the new testing measures would be temporary failed to dampen concern over the extra cost burden of testing prior to departure and on arrival in the UK and the need for government to support the travel industry.
The measures will be examined at the three-week review point on December 20, according to the government.
Abta chairman Alistair Rowland, chief executive of long-haul operator Blue Bay Travel, was among the latest to condemn the government’s actions.
He said: “Saturday’s news has come as a blow to the travel industry and to those holidaymakers who are abroad right now enjoying some much-needed winter sun and who didn’t factor into their plans, or budget, the requirement for a Covid-19 test before they fly home.
“When the government’s traffic light system was overhauled in October, the red list reduced to zero, and pre-departure testing to return to the UK dropped for fully vaccinated travellers, consumer confidence to book holidays soared.
“The re-introduction, announced November 27, of PCR testing on day 2 after returning to the UK and now the requirement to do a pre-departure test before flying home are two significant barriers for holidaymakers from both a risk and cost perspective.
“The pre-departure test, in particular, raises a red flag for holidaymakers who are worried about getting stuck in the resort after receiving a positive test result and not being able to return home as planned.
“That said, we are in a much better position than we were this time last year, with the majority of the UK now double-jabbed and with the booster programme being ramped up.
“Our hope is that, after scientists have had time to study Omicron and the effectiveness of the vaccine against this variant, the government will be able to loosen restrictions on testing and travel as speedily as they enforced them and holidaymakers will regain their confidence to get away, particularly as we approach the January peak holiday booking period.”
He revealed that his company had its strongest month of sales in October since the start of the pandemic, even exceeding October 2019 levels by 51% with customers booking last-minute getaways for winter 2021-22 to the Caribbean, Mexico, Maldives and Thailand as well as for summer 2022.
Charlie Cornish, chief executive of airports group MAG, warned that consumer confidence in travel was being destroyed.
“We understand the need to respond quickly to the emergence of new variants where there is a substantial threat to public health,” he said.
“But, yet again, the government has chosen not to share data and evidence to support its actions.
“Uncertainty, and a lack of transparency on decision-making, is destroying consumer confidence in travel and will hold back the recovery of one of the UK’s most important industries.
“There continues to be no recognition from the government or the opposition of the impact these restrictions will have on our sector, and the urgent need for support while we continue to be prevented from operating normally.”
Meanwhile, Professor Mark Woolhouse, scientist advising the government, told the BBC that the new rules had come “too late” to make a “material difference” to a potential wave of the Omicron variant in the UK and were “a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”.
Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “Travellers will understand the need for government to introduce public health measures, however constantly changing rules at the last minute leaves passengers footing the bill. In some destinations, it will be difficult for people to secure tests at such short notice.
“For those who do test positive abroad, they should first and foremost follow local health guidelines. This will likely require quarantining in your existing hotel or at government accommodation. In some countries, travellers will have to pay for quarantine, and some travel insurance providers can help with this. Travellers should also check the flexible booking policy of their airline to rearrange flights.”