Airline operators have said the return of pre-departure coronavirus tests for all international arrivals to the UK will be a “devastating blow for aviation and tourism”.
The rule is being introduced to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant and applies to all travellers over the age of 12 visiting the UK or returning from a holiday, regardless of vaccination status. It will come into force from 4am on Tuesday 7 December.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the measure is due to an “increasing number of cases linked to travel”. Tests must be taken a maximum of 48 hours before the departure time.
Everything you need to know as COVID travel rules change again
Chairman and CEO of British Airways Sean Doyle described the move as a “devastating blow”.
He said: “The blanket re-introduction of testing to enter the UK, on top of the current regime of isolation and PCR testing on arrival is completely out of step with the rest of the world, with every other country taking a measured approach based on the science.
“Our customers will now be faced with uncertainty and chaos and yet again this a devastating blow for everyone who works in the travel industry.”
The Airport Operators Association echoed Mr Doyle’s words, saying that pre-departure tests will be a “devastating blow for aviation and tourism”.
CEO of Airlines UK Tim Alderslade said the rapid changes to UK entry requirements have made it “impossible” for the travel industry to plan ahead.
He said: “It is premature to hit millions of passengers and industry before we see the full data.
“We don’t have the clinical evidence. The red list extension made complete sense – that’s what it’s there for – but we know from experience that blanket restrictions do not stop the importation of variants.”
The Labour Party is in favour of the government move but said it has come too late, with Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper tweeting: “Finally! But why on earth is this still only being brought in nearly TWO WEEKS AFTER Omicron was identified?”
Ministers repeatedly said pre travel tests were not needed when we pressed them on this.
I’m very glad they’ve u-turned now but wish they’d done so faster. Lessons for #Omicron from 1st wave & Delta wave are that if lots of separate new cases seed in UK it accelerates pandemic
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) December 4, 2021
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting posted on Twitter: “Finally the Health Secretary accepts Labour’s call for pre-departure tests, but why up to 48 hours before flight?”
In addition to test for all international arrivals, Nigeria is being added to the travel red list – joining several southern African nations which were put on it after the Omicron variant was first detected in the UK late last month.
It means that only UK citizens and residents will be able to enter the country from Nigeria, and they will have to pay to stay in a quarantine hotel for 10 days.
That change comes in from 4am on Monday, with Mr Javid saying Nigeria is “second only to South Africa for cases linked to Omicron”.
Mr Streeting added that there are “27 cases already in England and that’s growing”.
Overall, there are now 160 confirmed cases of Omicron in the UK, with British scientists having suggested that it could have a “shorter incubation period” than other variants.
Mr Javid acknowledged that the fresh measures are “hugely unfortunate” for people who already had travel plans, but insisted they would be “temporary”.
“We want to remove them as soon as we possibly can,” he added, saying that “vaccines remain our first line of defence”.
Travel rules are a matter for the devolved administrations, but measures introduced by Downing Street are usually replicated elsewhere, and Scotland quickly announced the same testing requirements.
The new travel rules come as Mr Javid has called on the public to get the booster vaccine before spending time with their loved ones this Christmas.
Mr Javid said it was “absolutely crucial” that the public “top-up” their immunity before the holidays.
A total of 19.8 million people had received their third jab by 4 December, while more than 51 million have had their first dose and almost 46.5 million their second.
The Department of Health and Social Care estimates that 20 million will have had the booster by 5 December.