Spain in talks with UK over pre-departure testing scheme

Spain’s secretary of state for tourism is hopeful a pilot scheme for mutual pre-departure testing for travel between the UK and the Canary Islands could begin next month.

Fernando Valdés said talks were underway with the UK, and Germany, for mutually-recognised rapid Covid-19 testing schemes with the archipelago to be implemented.

In an interview with Travel Weekly, he said the current requirement in Spain for PCR tests to prove tourists are Covid-free “has to change” to reduce barriers to travel ahead of a vaccine rollout.

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Spain ruled on November 12 that arrivals must show negative PCR tests, which require lab analysis and typically take two days to process, to enter the country. The Canaries, which has a lower infection rate than the mainland, has since said it will move to accept antigen tests in time for a winter market.

UK transport secretary Grant Shapps is yet to confirm the type of tests the UK will accept when its ‘Test to Release’ scheme comes into force on December 15, when negative results on tests after five days grant travellers an exemption from quarantine. Sources close to the taskforce expect PCRs to be required at first.

The EU Commission recommended on November 18 that member countries move towards rapid antigen tests to diagnose Covid-19.

Valdés told Travel Weekly: “They [PCRs] are the certified tests, but we have to move forward to be more agile and put in place measures that are more flexible, more cheap and more accessible to the population. It has to change.”

He predicted a move towards some form of rapid diagnostic testing “within weeks, not months” and said “the science is moving very fast” with health officials in Spain improving sensitivity and reliability of rapid tests “every week”.

“Just two months ago we didn’t know we had a vaccine,” he said. “Thing can move very fast.”

While Valdés wants to move away from quarantine altogether with the pre-departure tests, he believes the next step is to trial the regimes with bilateral mutual recognition.

He is hopeful talks with Spain’s two biggest tourism markets, the UK and Germany, will lead to a rapid testing regime being rolled out, starting with a two-month pilot in the Canaries, a popular winter destination that has a low rate of Covid infection.

“A pilot gives us a window of opportunity,” he said, suggesting it could run for two months from December 15 to February 15.

“Right now it’s all about [creating] confidence [to travel],” he said. “A pilot would give confidence to tourists, operators and agents.”

But Valdés accepted that the UK, and Germany, will also be talking to other destinations about testing requirements and may be hesitant to show favour to one destination such as the Canaries: “We are talking, we are making steps, but they are maybe smaller than the ones I would like,” he said. “I know it’s not very easy to move as fast as I would like.”

An international conference was held on Canary Island La Palma on Monday, at which the UK’s tourism minister Nigel Huddleston spoke.

Valdés said he was “pleased” Huddleston participated in the conference, adding: “Working with UNWTO and WTTC, we have approved a final declaration calling for the restoration of international travel in a careful and coordinated manner.”

MoreInterview: Spain expects tourism ‘as we knew it’ by 2022

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