Comment: Major gaps in testing announcement

Unanswered questions remain, says Paul Charles, chief executive of travel PR consultancy The PC Agency

Next week, the government will introduce new border controls which go much further than any entry policy we’ve seen before.

The medical equivalent of an American ESTA visa, the government will insist anyone flying into England, possibly the whole of the UK if the devolved administrations agree, or travelling by Eurostar/Eurotunnel/ferry, will have to provide evidence of a negative Covid-19 test taken up to 72 hours before travel. Otherwise, as the Irish Government have just introduced, there might be hefty fines or even prison sentences for those arriving on UK shores without one.

Airline check-in teams will be responsible, as they are currently, for checking that documents are watertight before any passengers can board and then enter the UK.

It is hard to argue against this necessary measure, in order to help reduce infections at a time when the United Kingdom is almost number one in the world for infections per 100,000 of the population.

However, as typical with recent government announcements, there are major gaps in the detail and concerns are already mounting within the travel sector that the fragile recovery seen towards the end of 2020 will be damaged further.

In the last 72 hours alone, following the introduction of a third lockdown and amid talk of inbound testing, consumers have become more cautious about booking holidays and when they realistically expect to travel.

There are still so many unanswered questions – how easy will it be to get a test when abroad? If you’re on a Maldivian island, is it realistic to get a PCR “gold-standard” test within 72 hours of travelling, especially if you’re having to fly internally first. Will you find a test facility at short notice easily in every destination?

Furthermore, what would happen if your test result doesn’t come back quickly, due to demand pressures on test suppliers, and you are forced to miss your flight because the airline won’t let you board. With airline schedules vastly reduced this year, there is no guarantee anymore of the next plane home being the same day or even departing within the next 48 hours.

There is little doubt that the infrastructure is not yet built or capable of delivering for the millions of British travellers who go abroad each year, and it will take many months to put into place.

Which surely makes it even harder for the government to fast-track the introduction of inbound testing from every destination in the world? UK citizens, who don’t commit a crime, are entitled to seamless access to their own country. The government has said this morning that travellers from some countries may be exempt if the infrastructure is not up to the job but, again, there are scant details on which countries, so it leaves the sector in limbo wandering whether to sell a destination or not.

Departure testing, which will reassure passengers that the person sitting next to them is also Covid-free, is a vital step forward as long as there is international consistency on the measures in place. Consumers need clarity on the procedures they face if they’re to book with confidence.

The introduction of extra measures will tie-up passengers, travel operators and airlines with more red-tape. And there is the cost for consumers. A family of four with children aged 11 or older, wanting to travel to the Canary Islands would have to pay for tests outbound from the UK, in order to enter the Canaries, and then pay for further PCR tests to get back into the UK. That could easily add £1200 (£600 each way) to the total holiday cost. I don’t believe many families will be that keen to travel faced with such an additional hit to the credit or debit card.

Whatever the exact measures, we are in extraordinary, unchartered territory as we start 2021. The pandemic has changed how we fly and where we fly to. Getting into and out of a country is about to become that little bit more complicated. We are likely to have to get used to travelling with much more documentation than we have been used to in the past.

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