The introduction of compulsory Covid PCR tests for everyone arriving in the UK has been described as a “huge blow” for the travel industry.
The move, announced by Boris Johnson on Saturday, has been welcomed by scientists as a way of buying time to learn more about the Omicron variant.
There are now 10 countries on the government’s red list for travel, which means arrivals from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia will have to quarantine for 10 days.
But Abta, the trade association for tour operators and travel agents in the UK, said the added cost of testing for all arrivals will have an impact on customer demand for holidays, adding pressure to an industry that has been among the “hardest hit” during the pandemic. Without a negative result, people will have to self-isolate for 10 days.
“While Abta understands that this is a rapidly evolving situation and public health must come first, the decision to require all arrivals to take a PCR test and self-isolate until a negative result is returned is a huge blow for travel businesses, many of whom were only just starting to get back on their feet after 20 months of severe restrictions,” an Abta spokesperson aid.
“These changes will add cost to people’s holidays, which will undoubtedly impact consumer demand and hold back the industry’s recovery, so it’s vital that this decision is kept under careful review and restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme.
“The government must also now consider offering tailored support for travel businesses, which have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic.”
Scientists believe increased testing will offer time to better understand the risk Omicron may pose before the variant becomes more widespread in the UK.
Dr Nathalie MacDermott, the National Institute for Health Research academic clinical lecturer at King’s College London, said: “The action to ban flights from the most affected countries is never a decision that should be taken lightly.
“But for a brief period it can buy the time needed to better understand the threat posed by this new variant and ensure the implementation of more robust identification and targeted contact tracing for individuals arriving from those countries now placed on the red list.
“The decision by the government to re-implement the need for a PCR test from all individuals arriving in the UK from abroad on day two, with self-isolation until a negative test is reported, while frustrating for those travelling, is essential in order to rapidly identify cases of infection with the Omicron variant and implement prompt isolation and targeted contact tracing to limit the spread of the variant in the UK.”
Concerns have also been voiced about whether the testing industry can meet a sudden rise in testing demand.
The Which? travel editor, Rory Boland, said travellers will understand the need for restrictions but the private testing industry which they will have to rely on “isn’t fit for purpose”. “Testing firms have struggled to provide tests on time over the past year, so it is hard to have confidence they will be able to cope with this spike in demand at short notice,” he said.
“Now that the government has taken the decision to make PCR tests mandatory, it must take steps to properly regulate the marketplace and implement the CMA’s recommendations so that consumers can have confidence they are booking with a provider they can rely on.”