Despite the health secretary, Sajid Javid, saying that travel restrictions could end “very soon”, the government says testing rules for arrivals to the UK will remain in place until January at the earliest.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, tweeted: “All current testing measures remain in place and will be reviewed in the first week of January.”
The restrictions are tougher than applied in the summer, requiring self-isolation until the test brings a negative result. These are the key questions and answers.
What has changed?
The PCR test for arrivals was introduced on 30 November. On 7 December, the day before Mr Javid said travel restrictions could be scrapped, the government added extra Covid-19 checks for everyone aged 12 and over travelling to the UK from any foreign country except Ireland.
As a result, millions of travellers face costs and complexity to Christmas and New Year plans.
Mr Shapps warned that rules could get tougher still: “As always, we keep all our travel measures under review and we may impose new restrictions should there be a need to do so to protect public health.”
Why were the rules tightened?
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, tweeted: “In light of the most recent data we are taking further action to slow the incursion of the omicron variant.”
Even though the prime minister subsequently said that there is a “tidal wave” of omicron engulfing the UK, the testing and quarantine rules are staying in place.
What tests do I need?
Fully vaccinated arrivals must meet the following conditions:
pre-departure test before being allowed on board a train, boat or plane to the UK – lateral flow/rapid antigen or PCR
post-arrival PCR test on day of arrival, or one of the two following days
self-isolation until the PCR test brings a negative result
As PCR tests are slower and more expensive, most travellers will settle for a quick, cheap lateral flow for the pre-departure test. NHS tests cannot be used. Self-administered tests sold by recognised providers in the UK, including those using photographic evidence, are acceptable for the pre-departure test.
For the post-arrival test, self-administered tests are acceptable – but professionally administered tests are likely to be faster and more accurate.
How far in advance must I take the pre-departure test?
For travellers whose journey ends in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, the test must be taken on the day of departure or one of the two preceding days.
For a Wednesday flight from the US to the UK, arriving the following morning, you could test on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. So for a 9pm flight on Wednesday, you could take the test at 9am on Monday – 60 hours before departure.
Wales has a tighter rule, requiring a test within 48 hours of departure.
How much will it cost?
Pre-departure tests will depend on prevailing prices in the location – typically €25-€30 (£21-£25) in Europe, as much as $200 (£152) in the US.
A negative certificate will need to be presented to the airline, shipping firm or train operator before departure.
In addition, each traveller aged five or over (from aged 11 in Scotland) must book a post-arrival PCR test, typically costing £40-£70.
What if I am on a very short journey?
On a trip of up to three days, whether a short business journey, a Lapland day-trip or a weekend in Paris, you can test in the UK before departure to the overseas country.
For countries that require a pre-departure test, such as France, you may be able to use the same result both to enter your destination and to return to the UK.
The value of such a test in identifying possible infections picked up abroad is zero, but it complies with the law.
My journey is late or cancelled. My pre-departure test has past its validity date. Must I take another?
No. The government says: “Given the reduced incubation period of the Omicron variant, passengers are advised to take the pre-departure test as close as possible to their scheduled departure to the UK and no earlier than 48 hours before travelling.”
But if your flight, ferry or train is disrupted, you should be allowed to travel on the delayed or next available service without needing to test again. When travelling on “a commercial transport service” the legal requirement to meet is “the service’s scheduled time of departure”.
What are the rules for unvaccinated travellers?
The rules are almost the same as before: the one change is that a pre-departure test must be taken two days ahead (down from three days). You must also book PCR tests for days two and eight and self-isolate for 10 days (reduced to five in England if you take a “test to release” halfway through).
Haven’t we been here before?
Yes. The government’s refrain is: “Let’s test again, like we did last summer”.
From May to September 2021, fully vaccinated travellers to the UK had to take both pre-departure and post-arrival tests. The pre-departure test was scrapped for double-jabbed passengers on 22 September.
From 24 October, travellers could opt for a cheaper and faster lateral flow test on arrival.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said in October: “We are accelerating towards a future where travel continues to reopen safely and remains open for good.”
“With more than eight in 10 people now fully vaccinated, we are able to take these steps to lower the cost of testing and help the sector to continue in its recovery.”
Earlier this month he told Christopher Hope of the Telegraph that pre-departure tests would not return because to do so could “kill off the travel sector again”.
But the rules have now reverted to where they were in summer, but with an added twist: travellers must self-isolate until a negative PCR result is received.
What happens if I test positive abroad?
You must immediately notify the local health authority and follow their instructions for isolation, which could be at your cost. Some travel insurance policies will cover the expenses involved.
Travel firms will generally be flexible about moving bookings for people who test positive ahead of their flight/ferry/train and allow postponements without additional fees.
I have recovered from Covid-19 and worry about false positives. Can I get an exemption from testing?
No. The Department of Health says: “If someone has tested positive with a PCR test, they should not be tested using either PCR or rapid lateral flow tests for 90 days.”
But regardless of recovery status the government still insists on all travellers taking the two tests.
The Department for Transport says: “If you have recently recovered from Covid but are no longer infectious, you should use a lateral flow device (LFD) test. LFD tests have a lower sensitivity than PCR or Lamp tests, so they are less likely to return a positive result from a historic infection .”
While lateral flow is clearly the best option for the pre-departure test, there is no option but to take a PCR test on arrival in the UK.
What if someone tests positive for omicron on my flight?
Passengers have been contacted by NHS Test and Trace and instructed to self-isolate for 10 days.
How am I supposed to test if I am on a cruise returning to the UK?
Typically a cruise from the Canary Islands will call at Lisbon in Portugal and then spend two full days at sea before arrival in Southampton. Some larger ships have testing programmes on board; otherwise it will be required in the last port of departure before the UK.
A spokesman for P&O Cruises said: “We are aware of the change in guidance regarding pre-UK arrival testing and we are liaising with the relevant government and industry authorities regarding how this will affect cruise passengers.
“Once we have further details we will provide an update as soon as possible.”
How has the travel industry responded?
Airlines, holiday firms and cruise and ferry lines are aghast at the latest reversal. With two very significant changes in the space of a week, together with the expansion of the red list to include Nigeria, many travellers will conclude that the risk of being caught by hotel quarantine or unexpectedly high testing costs render journeys too uncertain.
The chairman and chief executive of British Airways, Sean Doyle, 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.
“Yet again this is a devastating blow for everyone who works in the travel industry.”
Martin Chalk, general secretary of the pilots’ union, Balpa, said: “The new costs and stress of travel seem designed to destroy confidence in air travel and the idea of families being confident in booking to reunite over the holidays, many for the first time since Covid, is now a cruel joke.”
Tim Alderslade, CEO of the industry body Airlines UK, said: “Blanket restrictions do not stop the importation of variants. It’s already here.
“They’ve now changed their travel advice twice within a week and it’s just impossible for anyone to plan.
“These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.”
When will the rules change again?
On 27 November, the prime minister said a review will be announced on Saturday 18 December. It was then postponed to Monday 20 December, and is now expected to happen on 5 January.