A boost for London: Rishi Sunak hails easing of Covid testing rules

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  • Rishi Sunak
    Rishi Sunak
    Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom (born 1980)
Winter light: sunrise over a relatively empty London Bridge on Thursday as commuters braved the cold weather (Jeremy Selwyn)
Winter light: sunrise over a relatively empty London Bridge on Thursday as commuters braved the cold weather (Jeremy Selwyn)

Rishi Sunak has hailed the easing of testing rules for international visitors as “a boost to tourism” in London after nearly two years of hugely damaging no shows by foreign tourists.

Much of the West End’s economy has been left badly scarred by the massive downturn in visits that began as soon as the first reports of the pandemic began emerging in January 2020.

However, hopes are rising that the capital’s crippled tourism industry could start to recover after Boris Johnson ditched the “temporary measures” introduced when the Omicron variant started to take hold last month.

The need for a pre-departure test to travel to England is being ditched for the fully vaccinated and under-18s from Friday morning.

From Sunday morning, arriving visitors will also only have to take a privately-bought lateral flow test costing around £25 instead of a PCR test at least twice as expensive on day two.

They will also not have to isolate until they get a negative result. Mr Sunak told the Standard on Thursday: “Yesterday was good news for the travel sector and for London with testing requirements for international travel now significantly reduced.

“This is a positive step to boost tourism... and ensure that we can continue to recover strongly from the pandemic in the weeks and months to come.”

He also stressed: “I would urge everyone in London who is eligible to get their booster jab as soon as they can. It’s the best way to protect your health, to protect jobs across the capital and to keep the economy open.”

There is a huge amount of pent-up demand for global travel… we look forward to welcoming visitors back

Laura Citron, London & Partners

The announcement was welcomed by tourism bosses in London.

Laura Citron, chief executive of London & Partners, which runs tourism body Visit London, said: “There is a huge amount of pent-up demand for global travel and we saw an increase in international visitors and bookings for London following the lifting of restrictions last year.

“We hope that yesterday’s announcement will see the same pattern emerge and we look forward to welcoming international visitors back to London.”

But Tom Jenkins, chief executive of European travel body ETOA, cautioned that two years of on-off restrictions could have dealt long-term harm to London’s reputation.

He said: “I was at a conference in America before Christmas and people were absolutely seething and they saw the PCR test as outrageous.

“Now they can come back but have they already decided the UK is an untrustworthy and maverick country to deal with?”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was “massively, massively important” to attract tourists back to London.

Commuters crossing London Bridge on Thursday (Jeremy Selwyn)
Commuters crossing London Bridge on Thursday (Jeremy Selwyn)

He told LBC Radio presenter Nick Ferrari: “I was just looking at the figures yesterday and £48.5 billion of income has been lost through coronavirus by tourism not taking place.

“A large amount of that will have come to the nation’s capital, which I think I’m right in saying before coronavirus was being more visited than Paris.

“It’s very, very important that we are able to bring tourism back.”

He explained that the strict “testing has effectively outlived its usefulness when it comes to travel” given that Omicron was now so widespread. “That’s why we’ve removed it... I hope it gives tourism a bump start this year.”

Mr Shapps also encouraged people in Britain to go ahead and book holidays abroad, stressing that the world is not a “dangerous place”.

He emphasised that a family of four would save hundreds of pounds due to the changes in the testing rules.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t think we should be treating the world as if it is a dangerous place and somehow completely safe within the UK. Travel is an important part of regularising normal life.” Travel bosses said they expected a swift recovery in bookings.

Joe Ponte, chief executive of ski operator Inghams, said: “One thing we know about skiers is that the majority of them still want to ski this winter if they can, and... this latest update makes it easier for them to do so.”

Noel Josephides, chairman of Sunvil Holiday Group and a director of specialist travel trade body Aito, said the downgrading of travel restrictions would “give a good confidence boost” to the sector.

He added: “It hopefully will mean that we can get through to summer in good shape and bookings that have already been made for the rest of the year can now go ahead.

“But we won’t really see a trend until the end of January when we see Omicron definitely under control.”

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: “After two years of red lists, border closures, and interrupted travel plans, it feels like a new dawn.

“I’d now expect a strong ski season, as France and other countries dilute their own restrictions, a bumper Easter and a near-normal summer period.

“Opening up travel brings back confidence so the Government now needs to remove the final arrivals test to ensure recovery.”

Nickie Aiken, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, who met Mr Sunak earlier this week, said: “I welcomed the opportunity to outline the real challenges the further restrictions are having on central London and specially the hospitality and leisure sectors.

“He certainly appreciates the unique issues we’re facing as office workers and international visitors stay away. I urged him to ensure the work from home diktat was relaxed as soon as possible.”

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