Pre-departure tests for travel were reintroduced by the UK government on 7 December.
This means that, currently, every traveller arriving into the country – regardless of vaccination status and where they’re travelling from – needs to present a negative result from a PCR or antigen test taken within the two days before their departure date.
Along with mandatory PCR tests and the addition of several countries to the red list, they were brought back in to help contain the spread of the Omicron variant of coronavirus, which is now widespread across the UK.
This has left many in the travel industry calling for a loosening of restrictions, which they argue are ineffective in containing Omicron’s spread at this stage.
Furthermore, leaks to press this week suggest that the tests could be scrapped this week, following a government review of travel rules expected to take place on 5 January.
So how could this affect your holiday in the coming weeks?
Here’s everything we know so far.
What are the current rules on pre-departure tests?
As of 7 December 2021, pre-departure tests must once again be taken by all travellers aged 12 and over before travel to the UK.
These can be lateral flow tests or PCR tests, but must be taken on the day of departure to the UK or on one of the two previous days. You will not be allowed to board a plane, ship or train to the UK without providing a negative result.
According to the Gov.uk website, your test “must meet performance standards of ≥97 per cent sensitivity, ≥80 per cent sensitivity at viral loads above 100,000 copies/ml”.
On 4 December Sajid Javid tweeted: “From 4am Tuesday, anyone travelling to the UK from countries not on the Red List will be required to take a pre-departure test, regardless of their vaccination status.”
The cost of pre-departure tests vary from destination to destination, with lateral flows usually cheaper than PCR tests.
Antigen tests in Greece cost as little as €10 per person (£8), while PCR tests abroad can skyrocket to as much as £125pp, especially if booked last-minute or in locations with limited availability.
Why might they be scrapped this week?
When the government announced a series of new travel restrictions in December – related to concerns about the Omicron variant – ministers assured the public that they would review the situation in the coming weeks and lift any extra testing requirements as soon as they were no longer deemed necessary.
On 9 December, answering a question in Parliament about the spread of Omicron in the UK, health secretary Sajid Javid said: “Very soon, in the days and weeks that lie ahead, if, as I think is likely, we see many more infections and this variant becomes the dominant variant, there will be less need to have any kind of travel restrictions at all.”
While Mr Javid was answering a question about hotel quarantine, his response was in relation to all travel restrictions.
Less than a week later, the Department of Health announced it would be emptying the UK’s red list, which at the time had 11 African countries on it, on 15 December – one example of a travel restriction being quickly introduced and then axed again.
Since then, many industry figures have called for the onerous testing restrictions to be eased for travellers to the UK, including pre-departure tests and compulsory PCR tests for vaccinated travellers after arrival, who also have to self-isolate while waiting for their day two test result.
Travel PR CEO Paul Charles has said the measures are already “out of date” and should be removed “urgently”.
“The rules are lacking evidence, there is no justification for a pre-departure test to the UK anymore. No one needs to monitor Omicron coming in – it’s already here,” Mr Charles told reporters.
“The PM needs to remove the pre-departure test as a minimum and turn the ‘day two’ [PCR test] into an easier lateral flow test.”
This week, an industry source has reportedly informed some media outlets that ministers are likely to drop the pre-departure test this month, in an update that could come as early as this week – though the government has yet to make any announcement to this effect.
On 3 January, a source told The Times: “Pre-departure tests were brought in to try to slow the spread of Omicron and stop it coming into the UK, Now that Omicron is dominant in the UK and everywhere it reduces the argument for having it. We have other ways of slowing the spread through domestic testing.”
When will PCR travel tests for all be scrapped?
The same source told The Times that the PCR testing requirement is set to stay for at least a few more weeks – though ministers have once again made no announcement to this effect.
Industry insiders have predicted that the post-arrival test restrictions will be slower to be eased, with one aviation industry source telling Travel Weekly that they won’t be lifted until the end of January.
“We don’t think they’ll ban international travel [at the 5 January review]. But it’s difficult to see them removing the test requirements,” the source told the industry publication last week.
“The problem with these rules is they are sticky.
“The pre-departure test – which is the one the industry hates most – is the test the medics most want. The Department of Health says the pre-departure tests are necessary to [ensure] we don’t import another variant.
“Let’s hope by the end of January or beginning of February we see some easement.”
A second airline source agreed, telling the title: “We’ll be pleasantly surprised if they remove the tests [on January 5]. We don’t expect it. It’s a minefield for international travel.”
When is the next travel rules update?
Based on the timing of the last announcement, ministers are expected to review the travel restrictions tomorrow, 5 January.
However, the Department for Transport (DFT) told The Independent that it could not confirm or deny that there would be an announcement tomorrow.
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