Blanket travel quarantine restrictions will be relaxed from 15 December so people can travel to high-risk “red list” countries to visit relatives for Christmas.
After weeks of fierce interest, transport secretary Grant Shapps announced the changes to the current system overnight.
However, some airline bosses, such as Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary, think the reforms could go further.
Under Shapps’ new plan, from mid-December those returning from high-risk countries which do not have a a travel corridor will be able to order a Covid test, and if they test negative on the fifth day back in the UK, can be free.
The decision to allow testing after a five day quarantine period was taken because health experts concluded that the likelihood of detection under a day seven test is not significantly better than a test on the fifth day.
However, tests taken on the fifth day give materially better results than those on taken on the day of arrival itself.
Countries such as Germany and Iceland have been using a similar five day “test to release” system since the summer.
However, although most people start showing symptoms of the disease after five or six days, the incubation period can last up to 14.
Since 10 July, business travellers and holiday makers have risked needing to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival back into the UK if their destination was placed on the high-risk red-list.
A list of quarantine-free travel corridors, destinations deemed safe to travel to without the need to self-isolate on return, has changed as infection rates increased in Europe but fell elsewhere in the autumn.
The so-called ‘green list’ of travel corridors will still operate, indicating where it is safer – and, without the need to pay for PCR tests, cheaper – to travel to.
Under Shapps’ plan, the private tests are expected to cost between £65 and £120.
Shapps said: “Our new testing strategy will allow us to travel more freely, see loved ones and drive international business. By giving people the choice to test on day five, we are also supporting the travel industry as it continues to rebuild out of the pandemic.”
Shares rise but airlines call for further steps
Shares in air transport companies Tui, Easyjet and BA owner IAG are up 13 per cent, 6.1 per cent, and 2.1 per cent respectively today.
Airlines UK, the trade body for British carriers, welcomed the announcement, but saying that it would “begin the process of opening up international travel and restarting UK aviation”.
But, said chief executive Tim Alderslade, the government needs to go further and put in place “a pre-departure or domestic testing regime that can remove safely the need for self-isolation altogether, as quickly as possible”.
Ryanair boss O’Leary told the BBC this morning quarantine was “a fig leaf” but testing travellers before they leave their holiday destination would be better than after they arrive back into the UK.
Virgin Atlantic chief exec Shai Weiss agreed, saying: “Moving to a pre-departure regime, supported by latest independent evidence, would be twice as effective as quarantine.
“Passengers should be able to take a test from up to 72 hours before departure, including a rapid test at the airport on the day of departure.
“The only way to fully reopen vital trading and travel links, support the UK’s economic recovery and protect more than 500,000 jobs supported by aviation, is to move to a robust pre-departure testing regime to safely replace quarantine as soon as possible”.
Southend airport’s Glyn Jones also hit out at the scheme over the cost of the tests, saying that many short-haul flights were cheaper than the £65 to £120 being reported.
“It is simply not viable for many hard working families”, he said.
Airports to receive long-awaited relief
Ministers also announced that the UK’s airports would receive new financial support after months of pleading from the sector.
The support, which will become available in the new year, will be equivalent to the business rates liabilities of each airport, and capped at £8m for each site.
Airports in England and Wales have been asking for business rates relief – which has already been received by their Scottish counterparts – for six months.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “The aviation industry is vital to our economy – creating jobs and driving growth- which is why we have supported them throughout this crisis through the job retention scheme, loans and tax deferrals.
“This new package of support for airports, alongside a new testing regime for international arrivals, will help the sector take off once again as we build back better from the pandemic.”
Airport Operators’ Association chief exec Karen Dee said: “We are pleased that the Government has listened to our calls for business rates relief for airports in England.
“The measures announced today will provide much-needed support to many embattled airports, helping them through the challenging months ahead.
“However, not all airports will see full business rates relief and all of aviation will continue to face considerable challenges over the coming months and years. We will therefore need to continue to work with Government on what other steps can be taken to safeguard the UK’s aviation businesses.”
But for some airports, £8m is just a drop in the well. Heathrow, for example, is facing a business rates bill of £120m for the current year.