After days of promises by ministers, the government has finally announced that travellers to the UK will have to take a Covid test before departure. But it has not said when exactly the scheme will start.
While airlines and airports broadly welcomed the initiative, one travel industry figure criticised the plan as “not joined up”.
From some time next week, most international arrivals, including UK nationals, will be required to present a negative Covid-19 test taken up to 72 hours prior to departure to the UK.
The procedure will be at the passenger’s expense. It will not apply to arrivals from the republic of Ireland.
Children under 11, lorry drivers and flight, sea and rail crew will be exempt. Passengers travelling from countries deemed to lack “the infrastructure available to deliver the tests” will also avoid the requirement.
It is not yet clear which nations might qualify for this exemption, but the government is expected to provide a list.
Only Scotland and England have announced the measure so far, but Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to follow suit.
The testing requirement is in addition to 10 days of self-isolation for arrivals from the vast majority of countries. In England, the traveller can end quarantine after five days with another negative coronavirus test.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps said: “We already have significant measures in place to prevent imported cases of Covid-19, but with new strains of the virus developing internationally we must take further precautions.
“Taken together with the existing mandatory self-isolation period for passengers returning from high-risk countries, pre-departure tests will provide a further line of defence – helping us control the virus as we roll out the vaccine at pace over the coming weeks.”
Mr Shapps said lateral flow tests and loop-mediated isothermal amplification (Lamp) tests will be allowed, in addition to the NHS-standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
The first two types of tests are relatively cheap and swift.
Airports and airlines have been demanding a coherent testing regime for the past nine months.
John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Britain's biggest airport, London Heathrow, said: “Having called for the introduction of pre-departure testing since last April, we support this development which ensures passengers can continue to travel safely.
"The government must now prioritise the creation of a common international standard for testing that would introduce a global process to protect confidence in future travel.”
But as a result of the latest lockdown, he said, “aviation has effectively been grounded for a third time”.
Holidays are currently banned from the four nations of the UK. But travel firms fear the measure will hit customer confidence and advance bookings.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: “This should be a short-term, emergency measure only and once the roll-out of the vaccine accelerates, the focus must be on returning travel to normal as quickly as possible.
“This includes removing the need to quarantine or test as the UK population is vaccinated and the virus is brought under control at home and abroad.
“Ultimately, cheaper and quicker testing is required to ensure travel can be accessible, but then needs to be unwound once vaccinations and the overall threat of Covid recedes.”
The Board of Airline Representatives in the UK, which represents foreign carriers, “broadly welcomed” the announcement. The chief executive, Dale Keller, said “We recognise that the public will welcome this critical measure at the current time.
“However, it is vital that the lockdown period is utilised to develop a well-coordinated path towards easing travel restrictions at the earliest opportunity once the threat recedes.”
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultants The PC Agency, said: “It’s not joined up.
"What work has been done by government to ensure everyone will get a test abroad when they need one? What happens if someone misses a flight due to late results? And crucially what has the government done to create a global consistent protocol?”
While airlines, train operators and ferry firms will be expected to police the requirement abroad, any passenger who arrives without a certificate faces a £500 fine.