Ministers faced a huge backlash last night over the reintroduction of pre-departure Covid travel tests amid warnings that more than a million people could be stranded abroad.
The travel sector rounded on the Government after it performed a dramatic U-turn to require travellers to be tested before they return to Britain in a move that threatens to wreck the plans of millions this Christmas.
Tory MPs said the rule change will be a hammer blow to the beleaguered airline industry, and a leading scientific adviser to the Government said the clampdown would make no ‘material difference’ to the spread of the Omicron variant.
The move, which comes into force tomorrow, means travellers will have to provide a negative test result before they can board a flight home. Those who test positive will have to quarantine abroad at their own expense.
Ministers faced a huge backlash last night over the reintroduction of pre-departure Covid travel tests amid warnings that more than a million people could be stranded abroad
A Cabinet source said some officials and scientists had wanted to go even further by insisting that travellers quarantine at home for up to eight days on their return.
‘If it had been up to the health “Blob”, this would have been even more disruptive,’ the source said.
Industry sources predicted more than a million Britons abroad will be scrambling to get a test in order to avoid being stranded.
Travel expert Paul Charles said: ‘People who are overseas are finding it difficult to obtain tests. It’s a weekend, lots of places are closed and these people had no reason to think about the need to get a test to come home.
‘People will effectively be stranded because they can’t get the tests that are now required.’
He added: ‘Tens of thousands of travel industry jobs are threatened. It is beyond belief that no support measures have been announced. That just indicates how knee-jerk these policies are.’
In a podcast interview recorded on Wednesday and posted on Friday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps (pictured) said ministers did not want to ‘kill off the travel sector again’
The Government U-turn came after a week in which ministers repeatedly insisted pre-departure tests would not be needed. In a podcast interview recorded on Wednesday and posted on Friday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said ministers did not want to ‘kill off the travel sector again’.
On Thursday, science minister George Freeman said further travel tests would put the economy ‘on its knees’.
But a source said chief medical officer Chris Whitty had made a powerful case to ministers on Saturday, citing a flight from South Africa to the Netherlands on which 11 passengers had Omicron.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab insisted that the pre-departure tests were ‘not prohibitive’, but acknowledged it would make only a ‘marginal difference’ to the spread of the new variant.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, who advises the Government’s Sage committee, said it was too late for the measure to slow the spread of the virus. ‘I think that may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted,’ he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
‘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. It’s too late to make a material difference to the course of the Omicron wave, if we’re going to have one.’
The UK Health Security Agency said a further 86 cases of Omicron had been confirmed in the UK on Sunday, bringing the total to 246.
Tory MP Henry Smith, chairman of the Future of Aviation group of MPs, said the new testing regime was ‘a massive blow that will hit our economy, jobs and place these vital industries into peril just as they were looking to recover’. Alistair Rowland, chairman of the Association of British Travel Agents, said the fragile recovery in the industry had been shattered.
Nigeria has been added to the travel red list after 21 cases of the Omicron variant in England were linked to travel from the west African nation. From 4am today, only British and Irish nationals and residents travelling from Nigeria will be allowed into the UK, and they will be required to isolate in a government-managed quarantine hotel.
What are the new travel rules?
From 4am tomorrow, everyone over 12 travelling to the UK will need to have taken a pre-departure test – either lateral flow or PCR – to prove they don’t have Covid-19. This test is mandatory, including for those who are vaccinated.
What if I test positive overseas?
Britons are advised to contact the British embassy or consulate for advice. You will have to abide by the quarantine rules that apply in that country. This will involve a period of quarantine in a government-approved hotel or facility at your expense, which could run to several hundred pounds. You will need to fund any medical treatment required. You can return home after testing negative, but will probably need to pay for a new flight.
What happens after I arrive home?
Returning travellers must self-isolate at home until they take a day two test. This must be a PCR test, which is booked before you travel and bought privately from a government-approved provider. You must self-isolate until you get a negative result.
What about travel insurance?
Some policies, such as those offered by the Post Office, include coronavirus cover. This will include trip cancellation and curtailment cover; overseas medical and repatriation costs.
What if I want to cancel a foreign trip?
You don’t have a legal right to a refund. But most tour operators and airlines will give you a voucher to re-book at a later date.
What countries are on the red list now?
Ten southern African countries were added to the UK’s travel red list because of Omicron – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. Nigeria was added from 4am today.
What are the travel rules for red list countries?
You should not travel to red list countries for holidays. People returning to the UK from a red list country must take a pre-departure test and undergo a hotel quarantine for ten days, with a test at day two or eight. Quarantine currently costs £2,285 for a single adult and £1,430 for a second adult.
What happens next?
These are temporary measures introduced to prevent further Omicron cases from entering the UK. They will be examined at the three-week review point on December 20.
Pointless over-reaction is hammer blow to my industry
By Sir Mike Gooley, Chairman and Founder of Trailfinders
The latest flip-flop on travel restrictions, dictating that anyone – British resident or tourist – who enters this country from 4am tomorrow onwards must take a test two days before arrival, is another shattering blow to my industry.
It’s a pointless over-reaction as all the early evidence suggests that Omicron is much less likely to cause death or illness serious enough to warrant hospital treatment.
And although Omicron was first identified in South Africa, it might have been circulating unseen in Britain for weeks. A cluster of cases has been logged in Scotland, and it is now being found all over the UK.
It’s a pointless over-reaction as all the early evidence suggests that Omicron is much less likely to cause death or illness serious enough to warrant hospital treatment
There is no logic in clamping down on visitors from countries where no Omicron has been detected when passengers from Glasgow to London are getting off the train at Euston with no checks at all.
A survey of my 1,000 staff shows that just one person has caught Covid abroad, while more than 200 have contracted it in this country. Of course, I’m not advocating Covid tests on the railways, I’m just trying to highlight the uselessness and sheer unfairness of the new rules.
And though my business and my customers have suffered bitterly throughout the pandemic, I don’t want special treatment.
I’m simply echoing Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, who says the travel restrictions have come too late to make any ‘material difference’.
And yet they will have devastating long-term consequences for the travel business. Every snap decision, every change of direction causes more uncertainty. And for travel companies, uncertainty is the worst possible news.
Most people want to plan their holidays well in advance – traditionally, families start to think about their summer breaks at Christmas time. Even the relatively footloose tend to book their flights several months ahead.
Kneejerk rules introduced in a futile bid to control Omicron this week are going to have their real impact in the summer – because that’s when people will be missing out on travel that they are disinclined to book now.
Almost two years of simmering panic has damaged our confidence. Friends who run restaurants tell me that some customers are becoming wary of eating out at all: they book a table, then lose their nerve and don’t turn up.
We are becoming a country so cowed by slogans about quarantine and struggling hospitals that we are risk-averse. I served 14 years in the Army, eight of them in special forces, and I have been in business for more than half a century, so I believe I know a thing or two about handling risk.
That policy has cost Trailfinders £80million in 22 months, about a quarter of our total cash reserves. And as I own the company, that’s my own £80million
Risk has to be judged and managed. From the beginning of the Covid crisis in March 2020, my company has done everything possible to instil confidence in travel by minimising the risks.
We have adopted a policy of immediate refunds, with no questions asked and no 14-day delays, so that if holidays have to be cancelled our customers suffer no financial penalties. We can’t prevent the disruption and the disappointment, but we can at least ensure they are not out of pocket.
That policy has cost Trailfinders £80million in 22 months, about a quarter of our total cash reserves. And as I own the company, that’s my own £80million.
This colossal expense has enabled us to keep all our shops and offices open, with no enforced redundancies. It puts us in a strong position to bounce back when the Covid crisis is finally over – and history tells us that all pandemics do end eventually. We will return to normality. But there is no doubt that the industry will be scarred indefinitely.
The airlines’ fleets, for instance, have decreased by between 20 and 25 per cent, and large numbers of aircrew have seen their qualifications lapse. They can’t just get back on a plane and start flying tomorrow.
My staff want nothing more than to see the world flying again. To my great pleasure and pride, they couldn’t wait to stop working from home and get back to our shops and offices when the rules changed. That’s hardly surprising. There is something about the camaraderie offered by an office environment that makes it far preferable to the isolation of operating from your kitchen table. Indeed, working at Trailfinders appears to be better for romance than going on Tinder.
So far, I’ve counted 146 marriages between my employees. No wonder they were so eager to return.
It is unacceptable to punish the travel industry every time the pandemic takes a new twist. Hindsight shows us that all the previous international restrictions did next to nothing in slowing the spread of Covid.
Millions of jobs rely on this business. Holidays are crucial for everyone. We have to bring some sort of sanity to bear on these maddening rules.
Omicron: No deaths, no one in hospital. . . and symptoms ‘are only mild’
By Xantha Leatham Health and Science Reporter
Raab’s mixed messaging
Ministers’ mixed messaging over taking Covid precautions at Christmas continued yesterday as Dominic Raab urged people to ‘enjoy’ parties – while saying he would not be holding one himself.
The Justice Secretary said the public should feel free to go out to festive events this year and rely on their own ‘common sense’ in deciding what precautions to take. But he revealed that instead of a Christmas party at the Ministry of Justice there would be ‘appropriate drinks at a smaller scale’.
His comments came after public health chief Jenny Harries said people should not socialise ‘when we don’t particularly need to’ while Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey suggested there should be no ‘snogging’ under the mistletoe.
The new Omicron variant does not look ‘really severe’ and data suggests most victims get only mild symptoms, experts said yesterday.
While there is some evidence of increased transmission, scientists claimed there was no need to ‘panic unnecessarily’ and that vaccines remained a ‘very, very good’ defence.
Statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said: ‘It’s a very difficult situation because we haven’t got a lot of data… almost nothing from this country about what the risks are. In South Africa there’s data coming out showing pretty strong evidence of the increased risk of transmission and some evidence about people going to hospital. But it may actually be milder. We haven’t got enough data yet.
‘It doesn’t look as if it’s really severe if you get it. I think that’s about all we can say at the moment.’
Asked if measures to combat the spread of Omicron had gone far enough, Sir David told Trevor Phillips on Sky News: ‘It’s best to be precautionary, when there’s so much we don’t know… and when we don’t know it’s better to be safe than sorry.’ He added that the UK was being ‘saved by boosters’ countering the waning power of vaccines already received.
On Friday the World Health Organisation said there had been no reported deaths from the Omicron variant, despite it being detected in at least 38 countries.
The latest technical briefing from the UK Health Security Agency reveals that, as of November 30, no known cases of Omicron in England resulted in hospitalisation.
Further reassurance was provided by South African health researcher Professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, who said that while the ‘virus is spreading extraordinarily fast in South Africa’, so far the ‘disease has appeared to be mild’.
Ministers’ mixed messaging over taking Covid precautions at Christmas continued yesterday as Dominic Raab (pictured) urged people to ‘enjoy’ parties – while saying he would not be holding one himself
The professor, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, said that recent data suggested the ‘disease may occur more in younger people – and younger people who are unvaccinated’.
When asked whether he agreed with colleagues that the ‘rest of the world is panicking unnecessarily about Omicron’, he said: ‘I’m completely aligned to the view of my colleagues in South Africa.’
Yesterday 43,992 Covid-19 cases were recorded in the UK while a further 54 people were reported to have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
Adding to the debate, US pandemic adviser Dr Anthony Fauci said: ‘It does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it. Thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging.’
The number of new Omicron cases reported in the UK rose by 86, bringing the total to 246 – an increase of more than 50 per cent in the space of a day. The UK Health Security Agency, which publishes the figures, said 18 of the cases are in Scotland and 68 in England.
Tory MPs and industry chiefs live up to condemn extra Covid tests for passengers returning to the UK SourceTory MPs and industry chiefs live up to condemn extra Covid tests for passengers returning to the UK