Backlash from travel industry over UK's Omicron battle

New rules have dealt a 'devastating blow' to holiday firms

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Travel industry figures have criticised the UK government's new travel rules which have been introduced to limit the spread of the Omicron variant.

Passengers arriving into England will be forced to take a Covid-19 PCR test before their journey under temporary measures, which come into effect at 4am on Tuesday.

It comes after the red list was expanded to include a number of southern African nations last week, including South Africa and Botswana. On Monday, Nigeria, which is the continent's most populous nation, was also added to the red list.

British and Irish citizens who have travelled through those countries must now enter hotel quarantine for 10 days costing £2,285 ($3,023) per adult.

The government says the precautionary measures will remain in effect until December 20 when they will be reassessed as the effects of Omicron become more clear.

Travel industry expert Paul Charles lamented the new restrictions and claimed that Downing Street had failed to make a case for the tighter travel measures.

No one has yet been admitted to hospital with Omicron strain and data has not yet shown it to be more dangerous than the more widespread Delta variant, he said on Twitter. He also said some Cabinet members did not support the decision to reduce foreign travel.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said on Sunday the rapidly changing measures meant planning for travel was becoming impossible.

“It is premature to hit millions of passengers and industry before we see the full data. We don’t have the clinical evidence,” he said. “They’ve now changed their travel advice twice within a week and it’s just impossible for anyone to plan. These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.”

Meanwhile, the Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee described the move as a “devastating blow” for aviation and tourism.

File photo dated 22/08/20 of passengers in the arrivals hall at Heathrow Airport, London. On Saturday, it was announced all travellers arriving in England will be required to take a Covid-19 pre-departure test from Tuesday - while Nigeria is being added to the Government's travel red list. Issue date: Sunday December 5, 2021.

Announcing the measures on Saturday, the Government said the vast majority of cases in the UK had clear links to overseas travel from South Africa and Nigeria.

Officials in affected African nations say they believe they are being blamed for the emergence of the new variant, which has already spread rapidly across the world.

Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe are all on England's red list, badly disrupting Christmas travel plans for thousands of people.

The Nigerian High Commissioner to the UK, Sarafa Tunji Isola, agreed with comments which described the singling out of African nations as “travel apartheid”.

“The reaction in Nigeria is that of travel apartheid. Because Nigeria is actually aligned with the position of the UN secretary general that the travel ban is apartheid, in the sense that we’re not dealing with an endemic situation, we are dealing with a pandemic situation and what is expected is a global approach, not selective,” the commissioner told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“[Omicron] is classified as a mild variant – no hospitalisation, no death. So the issue is quite different from the Delta variant. I mean, the position has to be taken based on scientific and empirical evidence. It is not a kind of panicky situation.”

Prof Paul Hunter, from the school of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said there was current concern that Omicron was spreading rather more quickly than the Delta variant and there were probably more than 1,000 cases in the UK at the moment.

He told BBC Breakfast it was not clear how evidence from South Africa would translate to the UK as we have a highly vaccinated population.

“How it’s likely to spread in the UK still uncertain, but I think the early signs are that it will probably spread quite quickly and probably start outcompeting Delta and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least," he said.

“The big remaining question is actually how harmful it is if you do get Covid with this Omicron variant, and that’s the question that we’re struggling to answer at the moment.”

He said travel restrictions would have a minor impact, adding that “one of the problems with travel restrictions like this is that it then de-motivates other countries to actually be open about their own situations for fear of what they would see as economic sanctions. So I think once the infection is spreading within a country, then border restrictions don’t really add anything.

“We’ve known that long before Covid. This has been knowledge that we’ve had for decades, if not centuries, to be honest.”

On Sunday, a government science adviser said measures to test passengers travelling to the UK for Covid-19 had already come too late.

Prof Mark Woolhouse, who is a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, said the measures would not make much of a difference as the variant was already spreading “pretty rapidly”.

“I think that may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted,” he told the BBC.

“If Omicron is here in the UK, and it certainly is, if there’s community transmission in the UK, and it certainly looks that way, then it’s that community transmission that will drive a next wave.

“The cases that are being imported are important, we want to detect those and isolate any positive cases we find, as we would for any case anywhere.

“But I think it’s too late to make a material difference to the course of the Omicron wave, if we’re going to have one.”

But Boris Johnson has denied the scientists’ allegations. “No, I think what we’re doing is responding to the pandemic," the prime minister said in Merseyside.

“We were the first country in the world to take decisive measures to tackle Omicron. We put about 10 countries automatically, immediately, on to the red list and we said that anybody coming from any country in the world would have to quarantine for a couple of days.

“We’re now going further and toughening those measures up as we see the spread of Omicron around the world.

“I don’t think we need to change the overall guidance and advice we’re giving about Omicron in this country."

He said the officials were still waiting to see how dangerous the variant was, especially in terms of deaths and hospital admissions.

The Government said, as of 9am on Sunday, there had been a further 43,992 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK.

It also said that a further 54 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.

The UK Health Security Agency said a further 86 cases of Omicron had been confirmed in the UK on Sunday, 68 in England and 18 in Scotland, bringing the total to 246.

Updated: December 06, 2021, 11:57 AM