UK to overhaul international travel rules with PCR tests likely scrapped

Double-jabbed travellers arriving in Britain are set to be released from mandatory Covid testing

The UK is set to overhaul its international travel rules, easing the burden on passengers and giving a boost to the beleaguered industry.

Several options are being considered, although none have been confirmed as yet. An announcement is expected on Friday.

Covid tests for fully vaccinated travellers arriving in the UK are expected to be scrapped, with ministers tipped to roll back the rule requiring a pre-departure lateral flow test and a post-arrival PCR test, saving travellers around £100 ($138) per trip.

Other changes that may be on the cards include merging green and amber list countries into one low-risk category and slashing the number of red list nations.

In early trading, travel and leisure shares gained 1.3 per cent as Britain was set to consider easing the rules after the travel industry complained that a myriad of onerous red tape was hobbling airlines, holiday and tourism companies.

Airlines easyJet, Wizz Air, Ryanair Holdings and British Airways owner IAG, were up between 0.9 per cent and 3.6 per cent.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said on Friday morning that a decision has yet to be made on the issue and that a meeting would take place later in the day for ministers to reach a conclusion.

Ministers are reportedly considering taking Turkey off the red list, which requires travellers to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days upon arrival.

However, Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency who spearheaded the Save Our Summer campaign, has expressed doubt over Turkey being taken off the high-risk list.

This week he told The National that the “jury is still out” on Turkey and the country would likely remain on the red list because its infection data was “difficult to interpret".

In an interview with Sky News, Mr Eustice said the government was listening to concerns raised by travel industry bosses.

He pointed to the reasoning behind the mandatory PCR test rule, which he said was in place to detect any variants that would not be routinely picked up by lateral flow tests.

He said: “The rationale for the PCR test is that you can do genome sequencing and therefore you can detect possible variants of concern, and the difficulty with the lateral flow test, although it’s cheaper and it’s simpler to do, is it’s not able to pick up those variants.”

“What we don’t want is to end up with a variant that can evade the vaccine and that’s what we’ve got to remain vigilant about”, he said.

Rules look set to tighten for the unvaccinated, who may have to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of which country they have returned from.

Currently, travellers who have not had both doses of a coronavirus vaccine must take one PCR test and are not required to self-isolate after arriving from a green list destination.

But changes could see them required to quarantine at home and ordered to take two tests when flying in from a low-risk location under the new system.

The expected overhaul follows six months of fierce criticism over the cost of PCR tests and the complexity of the travel system.

It will complete a week of changes to the government’s Covid approach for the autumn and winter, with a new vaccination drive and approach to Covid restrictions announced.

Any changes will initially apply only to England, although devolved UK nations typically follow suit soon after.

However, there is already a backlash emerging from the Scottish government, which could choose different rules, and some government scientific advisers, The Telegraph reported.

It is hoped within the government that the reforms can be put in place in time for the autumn half-term break, which begins on October 25 for many schools.

Under all the new rules, it is expected that only lateral flow tests paid for by travellers can be used, rather than the free ones supplied by the government, so some costs are likely to continue.

The expected reforms could also see the traffic light system scrapped in favour of a two-tier model - countries the government is happy for people to travel to, and a red list of destinations that pose a Covid risk.

Obligatory hotel quarantine for people returning from red list countries, which means forced stays for 10 days in hotels selected by the government, would remain.

Andrew Flintham, managing director of TUI UK & Ireland, told Sky News that Britons are now “the outliers” internationally with its strict travel rules.

He said the cost of testing for travellers and the knock-on costs for the industry is “absolutely immense”.

Addressing the idea being mooted which could see PCR tests scrapped for double-jabbed travellers, he said: “We as an industry firmly believe that there shouldn’t be any of those restrictions at all.”

He said Britons are “more at risk going to Tesco supermarket than you are going international travelling”.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, urged the government to scrap PCR testing.

“The economic costs of not reopening are increasing every day and this is the last opportunity to change the travel rules under the government’s own task force timeframe,” Mr Alderslade said.

“They are removing furlough support for a sector that hasn’t been allowed to reopen.

“We either take this opportunity to pare back these restrictions or thousands of jobs will be at stake and our competitiveness as a trading nation will be further eroded.”

Henry Smith, chairman of the All-Party Future of Aviation group, welcomed the possible changes for fully vaccinated travellers.

“A decision needs to be made without any further delay because that is what the industry requires,” Mr Smith said.

“It is draconian for the unvaccinated, but I can see where the government is coming from, that if you want to travel internationally, getting vaccinated is the best thing to do.

“It doesn’t prevent people from travelling.”

Updated: September 17th 2021, 9:16 AM