The government is poised to slash the quarantine time for overseas travellers arriving in England from 14 days to five under a new “test and release” scheme to be announced on Tuesday, according to Whitehall and industry figures.
The changes amount to a huge shake-up of the quarantine system introduced in June to prevent travellers bringing Covid-19 into the country through airports, ports and trains.
Under the new measure, to be unveiled by transport secretary Grant Shapps, passengers coming from countries not on the so-called “green list” will have to self-isolate immediately on arrival in England but will then be allowed to take a test after five days, the officials and travel executives said.
Under the government's "traffic light system" passengers entering the country from a small number of countries, where infection rates are low, do not have to quarantine at all. That list is updated every week.
People who want to take the fast turnround tests, which provide results in only an hour, will have to pay for them themselves before being free to leave quarantine if the test is negative.
The cost of a private test is still more than £100, although ministers believe the price will come down in the coming months.
Foreign travel is currently effectively banned except for certain circumstances, such as work, but that will come to an end after the lockdown stops on December 2.
The government set up a “travel task force” in October to explore ways to use testing to reduce the 14-day self-isolation period for travellers entering the UK, following months of lobbying from the travel industry. The new measures are expected to apply only to travel into England, although the government is talking to the devolved administrations to try to create a single UK-wide system.
While airlines and airports are ready to welcome anything that could help stimulate demand for travel, companies are sceptical over whether there will be a rush in demand for flying while quarantine still remains.
Airlines insist there is a pent-up demand for leisure travel, and say bookings to countries have surged whenever they have been taken off the quarantine list.
They wrote to ministers last week pushing for a five-day self-isolation period as an “interim” step to help reinvigorate demand for travel.
Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of industry group Airlines UK, said cutting quarantine would be a “positive start”, but the key question was whether it would be enough to “make a material difference to bookings”.
The travel industry is pushing for pre-departure testing to cut out the need to quarantine at all, and has begun running test flights to try to further its case.
British Airways has announced it would introduce optional testing on some of its routes from the US to London Heathrow, while American carrier United Airlines this month ran the first transatlantic flight that had tested every passenger for Covid-19 before take-off.
Travel operators such as Tui, which is heavily reliant on the UK market, have been pushed to near financial collapse — in part due to the quarantine measures, which have led to swaths of holiday cancellations. The company is currently in negotiations with state-backed banks in Germany for its third loan this year of more than €1bn.
Average hotel occupancy in the UK in October was about 40 per cent, according to the industry tracker STR, and has further deteriorated since a second lockdown banning all but essential international travel was enforced this month.
The task force is expected to recommend that domestic cruises should be allowed to begin again from January under strict restrictions.
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