Airlines UK and Manchester Airports Group (MAG) have presented research to the government suggesting that testing rules should become a “thing of the past” for fully-vaccinated travellers.
The scientific analysis claims to provide evidence to support the removal of remaining testing requirements when government reviews international travel restrictions next week.
The modelling by Edge Health and Oxera, a specialist research consultancy that works with the NHS, shows that governments are not able to implement travel restrictions quickly enough for them to be effective in limiting the spread of new, more infectious variants.
As a result, imposing travel restrictions in response to the discovery of a new variant will not help control the spread of a new variant or protect public health.
Pre-departure and post-arrival PCR tests were scrapped on January 5 after government accepted that they served no purpose once the Omicron variant had become dominant in the UK.
That led to calls from across the industry to scrap the remaining requirement for post-arrival lateral flow tests, a plea MAG and Airlines UK is reinforcing.
As Omicron showed, it takes several weeks before governments become aware of new variants, and even longer to assess if they are variants of concern. By the time a new variant has been discovered and evaluated, it is too late for restrictions to make any difference, according to the study.
Retaining testing measures on a permanent, but precautionary basis would have huge long-term consequences for passengers and the travel sector. The study shows that even if current testing measures were kept in place indefinitely, they would only delay the spread of a new variant in the UK by between three and five days.
The research reveals that as soon as five days after the variant first begins to transmit internationally, new travel restrictions would only delay its peak in the UK by a single day. By contrast, the time it took to identify Omicron meant that the UK was not able to bring in additional travel testing until it had already been transmitting internationally for at least 19 days.
The permanent use of testing as a ‘first line of defence’ delivers benefits “far too small” to offset the economic and social damage caused by such restrictions, the study concludes.
Even such ongoing measures would only buy a handful of days in delaying the peak but would cost the UK economy between £8 billion and £11 billion a year.
MAG chief executive Charlie Cornish said: “It is critical that travel policies are based on the best available analysis and the latest findings from Oxera and Edge Health show conclusively that testing for international travel will not deliver significant benefits in managing the spread of new variants.
“As we learn to live with Covid-19, it is important that people are allowed to travel free of the additional cost and uncertainty which testing creates. This study provides Ministers with the clear evidence that this is achievable.
“The UK government has taken the step the remove domestic restrictions, and it should now apply this approach to international travel. We must allow the country’s worst hit sector to resume its road to recovery, and for the UK economy to benefit from the billions of pounds of economic value aviation generates.”
Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade said: “Testing restrictions for the fully vaccinated make no sense at all given the delay in governments being able to detect and act on the arrival of a new variant, as we saw with Omicron. This is something the World Health Organisation themselves have admitted. Not only do they fail to suppress the international spread of variants, they place a disproportionate burden on the travel sector and those that rely on the connectivity aviation provides.
“We need to be smarter in how we deal with future variants rather than resorting to blanket but wholly ineffective measures. Otherwise we will never be able to truly say we are ‘living with Covid’”
Meanwhile, Dr Simon Worrell, global medical director of testing firm Collinson, told the BBC: “Airport testing was only ever supposed to be a band-aid, a temporary solution to get trade and tourism staggering whilst we build up immunity and we are able to fight the virus by ourselves. We are at that point now.
“The link between getting infected and hospitalisation has been broken. We are in a fantastic place – the envy of the world, I think.”
Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said tweeted: “The UK government has taken the step to remove domestic restrictions and it should now apply this approach to international travel. We must allow the country’s worst hit sector to resume its road to recovery.”
MAG and Airlines UK sent the government research which it claimed showed that pre-departure testing has had little or no impact on the spread of Omicron ahead of the last travel rules review on January 5.