The chief executive of the Airport Operators Association has called the introduction of pre-departure Covid testing for travellers entering England a “devastating blow” for the aviation and travel sectors.

The new policy was announced by the Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Saturday, following the identification of the Omicron Covid variant in South Africa. From tomorrow (December 7), inbound travellers will need evidence of a negative lateral flow or PCR Covid-19 test result, taken up to 48 hours before getting on an aircraft, ferry or Eurostar/Eurotunnel.

The new measures requirement are in response to concerns about the new, highly transmissable variant. Nigeria was also added to the red list, taking the number of African countries subject to mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers to 11. Javid said the the country had been added to the list due to “the significant number of growing cases linked to travel with Nigeria.”

Pre-departure testing is a “major deterrent” to travel

Karen Dee said the pre-departure testing policy, would be a “major deterrent” to travel. She said: “This is a devastating blow for aviation and tourism. Pre-departure tests act as a major deterrent to travel and most of the limited remaining demand following the reintroduction of self-isolation will now fall away, just as airports were hoping for a small uplift over the Christmas holiday.”

She added: “Travel and aviation are the only sectors hit with any operating restrictions in response to the Omicron variant. The UK and devolved governments should have done the right thing and, alongside the restrictions, announced support for our businesses and our staff to get through another period of shutdown.”

The CEO of Airlines UK, Tim Alderslade, has said that the new requirements now make it “impossible” for the travel and aviation industries to plan ahead.

“Impossible” for industry to plan ahead

Alderslade 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.”

“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.”

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent international spread”

BALPA General Secretary Martin Chalk said: “BALPA supports the Government’s desire to protect the population through effective and data-led measures. Current WHO advice includes: “Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivising countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data.”

“Travel rules have been tightened twice in less than a week. 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 re-unite over the holidays, many for the first time since Covid, is now a cruel joke.

“The principle of supporting loss-making industries whilst government restrictions prevent business as usual, applies as much now as it ever did. The government’s actions and restrictions are risking our jobs, our livelihoods and our industry.

“BALPA wrote only 48 hours ago to urge the government to fund all mandatory tests for travellers and not leave it to ‘cowboy’ private testing companies. The cost to Treasury would be negligible. The expensive, inconsistent and poor reputation of private testing providers has long been an inhibiting – and at times entirely prohibitive – factor for travellers. Instead, the Government has doubled down on cost and uncertainty.

BALPA calls for “winter resilience fund” for aviation

“The Omicron and Government induced uncertainty also demands a winter resilience fund for aviation. Vital aviation industry skills, including those of pilots, will carry the ambitions of the whole country as we recover. Government must invest both cash and coherent support in the recovery now.”

The restrictions were announced by Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Saturday afternoon (December 4). He said: “Since we learned of this new variant our strategy has been to buy time…time to assess it but also to put in place protective measures. We always said that we would act swiftly if new data required it.”

The government said the decision had been made following analysis by the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) which indicated that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant, adding that pre-departure testing “is more likely to identify positive cases before travel.”

Passengers have been 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. The measures will be reviewed on December 20.

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