The rules on testing are to be eased for people travelling to England, the government has announced, following calls from the travel industry.
From 04:00 GMT on Friday, fully vaccinated travellers coming to England will no longer have to take a test before they travel.
And from Sunday, rather than taking a PCR test on day two of arrival, they can take a cheaper lateral flow.
The rules for self-isolating on arrival will also change.
The shake-up was confirmed by Boris Johnson earlier, following calls from travel firms who said the measures were not effective now that Omicron was spreading widely.
Under the current rules in force until Friday, all fully-vaccinated travellers over the age of 12 must show proof of a negative test lateral flow or PCR test taken in the two days before coming to the UK. Fully vaccinated people must also pay for a PCR test within two days of arrival and self-isolate while waiting for the result.
People who aren’t fully vaccinated must currently take PCR tests on both day two and day eight after arriving, and self-isolate for 10 days.
- From 04:00 GMT on Friday 7 January, people who are fully vaccinated and those aged under-18 will no longer need to take a test two days before travelling to England from countries outside the UK and the Common Travel Area. On arrival, they will have to take a PCR test but they will no longer have to self-isolate while awaiting the result
- From 04:00 GMT on Sunday 9 January they will only have to take a lateral flow test instead of a PCR test on day two. But this test must be bought from a private test provider – free NHS tests are not allowed
- Unvaccinated passengers will need to continue to take a pre-departure test, PCR tests on day two and day eight, and self-isolate for 10 days
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the pre-departure test “discourages many from travelling for fear of being trapped overseas and incurring significant extra expense”.
The announcement comes after airlines said passenger testing was making no real impact, with data last week suggesting one in 25 people in England had the virus.
They also said compulsory testing had held back the sector’s recovery.
Mr Johnson met his cabinet earlier and alongside changes to travel tests, the government has said it will ease Covid testing rules for people without symptoms, who will no longer need to confirm a positive lateral flow test with a PCR.
On Tuesday, Mr Johnson said he hoped the country could “ride out” the current wave, although he acknowledged parts of the NHS would feel temporarily overwhelmed.
That rule change will come into force on 11 January and apply to England only for now.
Following the announcement for England, Health Minister for the Welsh government Eluned Morgan said: “I have today reluctantly agreed to remove the requirements for fully vaccinated travellers and under 18s to take a pre departure test (PDT) and a day 2 PCR test when arriving in the UK.”
What are the current travel rules?
Currently, all travellers to the UK aged 12 and over have to show proof of a negative test, which can be a PCR or a lateral flow test, and must be taken up to two days before departure for the UK.
They then have to take another test – which this time must be a PCR test – within the first two days after their arrival in the UK.
But at the time that rule was brought in a month ago, the number of new cases reported in the UK each day was running between 40,000 and 50,000 – and was only rising relatively slowly because it was almost entirely made up of the Delta variant of Covid.
But UK cases have now risen sharply and Omicron is the dominant variant – so airlines can argue that there is no longer any hope of relying on testing to “keep out Omicron”.
‘I’ll feel unsafe on flights’
John Wyndham, who is currently planning a third trip to the US for February, said that scrapping pre-departure tests will make him feel unsafe on flights.
“I’m frustrated because pre-departure was the most important as an effective control and also the cheapest test,” he told the BBC.
Mr Wyndham runs a start-up company that is organising marching bands across the world to participate in London Band Week. He went to the US in December along with three colleagues, who paid £212 each for PCR testing.
However, he said that the eliminating pre-departure testing will only save him around £30 per person and wasn’t worth the added worry about new variants.
“It’s bonkers that we could now sit on the plane with someone who has it,” he said, adding that it would “worsen what has already been the most stressful travelling of my life”.
However, holidaymaker David Hughes welcomed the scrapping of PCR tests before returning to the UK. Currently on holiday in Dubai, the rule change will save his family of 4 around £400 and another removing the Day 2 PCR will also save the family another £400.
“Having returned from a country where there were strict entry requirements and we were tested on arrival I would be very confident that we’ll be returning to the UK Covid free,” he told the BBC.
Cancellation fees and no longer having to test before returning would mean significantly less hassle and stress, Mr Hughes added.
Peak booking period
In response, Mark Tanzer, Chief Executive of ABTA – The Travel Association, said the two announcements were “potentially very positive” for the travel sector, but that damage had “already been done”.
“We now hope to see confidence return as we enter what is usually the peak booking season for summer holidays,” he added.
Steve Heapy, boss of the airline Jet2 and tour operator Jet2 Holidays, also said the timing of the announcement will make a “huge difference”. Numbers of customers on their website, he said, were already increasing “exponentially” after the rule change.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, agreed that the announcement meant customer demand would be boosted in a “critical booking window” for the industry.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren also welcomed the news, saying it would make travel “much simpler and easier”, as customers could now book and travel with “confidence”.
The trade body Airlines UK has argued that continuing the current measures would be financially disastrous for the industry.
Ahead of the test changes, Manchester Airports Group (MAG) sent the government research it commissioned, which it claimed shows that pre-departure testing has had little or no impact on the spread of Omicron.
It said that passenger numbers at MAG’s airports fell by more than 30% after Omicron measures were introduced.
Tim Hawkins, chief of staff at MAG, told the BBC’s Today programme the research showed there was a “basis for taking out all tests” related to international travel, due to the high number of Covid cases in the UK.
“We are beyond the point where international travel restrictions can play a role in managing that peak and if there is no benefit to it then we shouldn’t be doing it and we should take those measures out,” he added.
Separately, European airline and tour operator stocks rose on Tuesday amid a rise in investor confidence in the sector.
Hargreaves Lansdown analyst Susannah Streeter told Reuters: “With so many people in the short-term being forced to isolate at home, it’s likely many people will be spending the next few weeks browsing travel blogs for inspiration, given there is so much desperation for a holiday.”
A recent report by aviation analytics firm Cirium found that the Covid pandemic triggered a 71% drop in international flights in and out of the UK in 2021.