U.K. Defends New Covid Tests That Riled Travel Industry
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s decision to force all travelers entering the country to take a pre-flight Covid-19 test, threatening to upend the peak Christmas season for airlines, reflects a “balanced approach” given the threat of the omicron variant, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab.
The government announced last night that all travelers, regardless of their vaccine status, will have to take a Covid test within 48 hours of their departure for the U.K. The move comes a week after the first omicron cases were confirmed in the U.K., which prompted the government to require PCR test within two days of arrival.
“The blanket re-introduction of testing to enter the U.K., on top of the current regime of isolation and PCR testing on arrival is completely out of step with the rest of the world,” British Airways said in a statement Saturday.
Raab defended the latest test decision from both travel industry complaints that it goes too far and from the opposition Labour Party’s charges that the government moved too slowly given the omicron threat. In the week since the variant was detected in the U.K., case numbers have risen to almost 250.
“We will always get the Goldilocks criticism of too much or too little, and I think we’ve taken the right approach,” Raab said on the Trevor Phillips show on Sky News. “We’ve focused on the vaccines and boosters and we’ve got a third of the populations over 12 with a third vaccine injection.”
The government’s latest moves, which also include banning flights from southern Africa, is putting more pressure on airlines that were counting on Christmas travel to help ease the losses accumulated during the pandemic. The risk of a second lost winter has already tanked shares, with the Bloomberg EMEA Airline Index losing 18% in November, its worst monthly performance in more than a year.
Omicron struck at a time the U.K. was already struggling with a surge of cases caused by the delta variant. The U.K. reported almost 44,000 new Covid infections on Sunday, the fifth consecutive day cases topped 40,000. One of the world’s most successful vaccine programs -- more than 80% of people over the age of 12 are double vaccinated -- has helped limit hospitalizations and deaths from delta, though it’s still not known how well the shots work against omicron.
The new pre-arrival test was announced by Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Saturday night, shortly after Transport Minister Grant Shapps said tourists would not require pre-departure testing. In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Shapps had expressly warned that such a move could kill off the travel sector. On Sunday, Shapps said on Twitter that the interview had been pre-recorded before the severity of omicron became clear.
“The introduction of pre-departure testing with little warning is a hammer blow to the business travel industry,” Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association said in a statement. “Public safety is a priority, but businesses will fail, travelers will be stranded and livelihoods devastated by the lack of coherent plans from government.”
Javid also announced that Nigeria would be added to its red list of countries that require a 10-day hotel quarantine at the traveler’s expense. Hours after the first omicron cases were identified in the U.K. on Nov. 27, the government added more African countries to the red list. A day earlier, the U.K. suspended flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.
Focusing on limiting the virus’s entry into the U.K. after it was already spreading was “a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted,” Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday.
“If Omicron is here in the U.K., and it certainly is, if there’s community transmission in the U.K., and it certainly looks that way, then it’s that community transmission that will drive a next wave,” he said. “I think it’s too late to make a material difference to the course of the Omicron wave if we’re going to have one.”
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