The travel industry has welcomed the government’s relaxation of its testing policies for international arrivals as “potentially very positive” for the sector.
Prime minister Boris Johnson today confirmed that pre-departure tests for those travelling to England would be scrapped from Friday January 7, and that self-isolation and PCR tests on arrival would be ditched in favour of lateral flow tests taken within two days.
Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer, said the government’s removal of pre-departure tests on return to the UK was “extremely welcome news.”
He said: “The removal of pre-departure testing recognises that with the Omicron variant widespread throughout the UK these tests do not serve a useful purpose. Pre-departure tests not only add to cost and create inconvenience, they can also plant a seed of doubt among some travellers who wonder ‘what will happen if I test positive abroad?’ which can be a considerable disincentive to booking an overseas trip.
Tanzer also welcomed the move to change post-arrival day two PCR tests to cheaper lateral flow tests, returning to the process in place in October 2021 before Omicron emerged and reducing testing costs for travellers.
“The two announcements are potentially very positive for the travel sector, but damage has already been done. We now hope to see confidence return as we enter what is usually the peak booking season for summer holidays. We would urge the Government to ensure greater stability in the international travel system, including avoiding similar disruption in future, to enable business to recover fully and to rebuild consumer confidence.”
Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee added: “Removing all the temporary travel restrictions is a welcome recognition that they no longer serve a purpose, now omicron is well-established in the UK.
“The UK government’s decision follows the same approach some other European countries have taken in recent days, such as the Republic of Ireland. The devolved governments should now follow suit, enabling a continued four-nation approach to travel in the UK.
Dee added: “Despite the removal of the temporary measures, airports continue to face a difficult period. There continue to be countries who have imposed restrictions on UK arrivals and consumer confidence has been knocked during the crucial Christmas booking period.
“The UK and devolved governments should set out how they will support aviation towards a sustainable recovery to ensure the UK has the connectivity and the airports necessary for our economic recovery.”
Manchester Airports Group chief executive Charlie Cornish said the announcement was “very positive news and will help restart the recovery of the travel and tourism sector”.
He added: “The removal of these temporary measures is important recognition that travel restrictions should not remain in place if they no longer help prevent the spread of the virus.
“By removing barriers to travel in what is a critical period for forward-booking, passengers, airports, airlines and business across the UK can now plan ahead with confidence.
“We look forward to working with government on a roadmap for the removal of all remaining restrictions, in order to help our prized aviation sector enjoy a full recovery.”
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the changes represented “welcome progress and a necessary step towards frictionless air travel for our customers”.
“Travellers can now book with confidence and look forward to reconnecting with loved ones and business colleagues,” he said. “Meanwhile customer demand will be boosted in a critical booking window for the travel industry and vital testing capacity can be reallocated where it is needed the most – in hospitals, schools and crucial national infrastructure.”
Weiss stressed: “Throughout the pandemic we have demonstrated that international travel can operate safely, taking full advantage of our world leading vaccine rollout.
“We look forward to working together towards the next review at the end of January, when the ultimate goal will be removal of all testing for travel and developing a playbook for how to deal with any new variants.”
Business Travel Association chief executive Clive Wratten, welcomed the news and said the restrictions have “caused unnecessary damage to the whole travel sector.”
He said: “It is imperative that the government backs-up these measures with a robust plan for future variants that does not mean closing our borders and strangling our sector once more.”
Joss Croft, chief executive of UKinbound, said: “The industry will be very pleased to see the removal of onerous pre-departure testing, and the replacement of the day 2 PCR test with a lateral flow test. However, this is not job done.
“January to March is a key booking period for inbound travel and if we are to ensure the successful revival of the UK’s valuable inbound tourism industry, our fifth largest export sector, worth £28 billion to the UK economy in 2019, then the government needs to provide a clear roadmap for the removal of all travel restrictions and to signal that the UK will be fully open for business.”
Julia Simpson, WTTC chief executive, said: “The removal of pre-departure tests and replacing Day 2 PCRs with more affordable antigen testing will significantly boost the UK travel & tourism sector and help both it and the whole UK economy recover much faster than expected.
“The testing measures being removed never actually stopped infections coming in and were a blunt policy which only damaged the travel and tourism sector.”
Andrew Crawley, chief commercial officer, American Express Global Business Travel, said the changes were “the right decision and a positive step forward”, adding: “We’re pleased the government has kept to its word.”
He said: “Travel restrictions have come at a huge cost to the business travel sector, which is the engine room of our economy, contributing £220 billion a year to UK GDP pre-pandemic.
“Today’s announcement will help our industry recover, empower UK businesses to reach new markets and catalyse growth.”
Steve Norris, managing director of EMEA for Flight Centre Corporate, said the industry “has been given the boost it needs from the government”
“This necessary decision will enable businesses to travel more easily and ultimately aid their recovery in the months ahead,” he added, noting a “steady increase in customer confidence fuelling the demand for business travel”.
“We’re pleased to see the government uphold its promise to act decisively on the latest Covid data to safeguard the population, while removing unnecessary restrictions as soon as data confirms it is safe and sensible to do so.”
Danny Callaghan, chief executive of the Latin American Travel Association (Lata) welcomed the news but questioned why pre-departure tests were not scrapped immediately.
He also said it was “very disappointing” the test-on-arrival still remains, despite the insistence of a PCR being dropped in favour of a lateral flow option.
“It’s difficult to see what that test is supposed to actually achieve,” he said. “You can go to a crowded football match without having to test afterwards, but not sit on a plane with 200 other people.
“I’m not sure the government actually knows why it is retaining the arrival test, other than for political perception reasons. This additional cost burden is unnecessary, continues to be a barrier to outbound and inbound tourism and needs to be scrapped as soon as possible.
“Travel does not represent any meaningful risk to this country – the real risk is the economic fallout from months of nonsensical restrictions.”
Balpa general secretary Martin Chalk said: “Anyone who recognises that the restrictions had absolutely no effect on Omicron spread welcomes the removal of pre-departure tests.”
But he warned: “Aviation will be far from back to normal once this takes effect, with large numbers of flights still being cancelled through winter and public confidence in travel still low.”
Chalk reiterated his calls for the government to support Balpa’s Aviation Recovery Plan, adding: “Our vaccine programme has been hugely successful. UK aviation now needs its own booster to ensure we can safely be fully up to speed to once again carry the flag around the globe.”