Airlines and trade associations have welcomed the government’s plan for tests for UK arrivals after five days as a “vital first step” towards ending quarantine restrictions.

But calls remain for pre-departure testing to eventually replace a reduced quarantine, which the government confirmed will be introduced from December 15.

Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade said the “hugely welcome step” would “begin the process of opening up international travel and restarting UK aviation”.

He added: “It is a good start and by more than halving the quarantine period we should see demand tentatively return and more routes and destinations become viable once again.”

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Day five testing is ‘good news for travel agents’

However, he stressed “a test at day five does not get rid of quarantine” and said the group would work with government towards a pre-departure or domestic testing regime “that can remove safely the need for self-isolation altogether, as quickly as possible”.

“This is the only way we’re going to comprehensively reopen the market,” said Alderslade, who said the news offered a “light at the end of the tunnel” for airlines and travellers alike.

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said the UK’s testing strategy “has the potential to become world leading” and could “kickstart the UK’s economic recovery and help the many businesses that rely on international trade to plan with confidence and protect jobs”.

But he added: “We encourage ministers to use this as a platform to move to regular testing as an alternative to quarantine and the introduction of a common international standard for pre-departure testing which will allow international travel to get back to normal as soon as possible.”

Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the introduction day five testing was “a vital first step to reopening the skies in the run up to Christmas” but said a five-day quarantine “is likely to prove a significant deterrent for travellers”, and “especially those on business”.

“The only way to fully reopen vital trading and travel links, support the UK’s economic recovery and protect more than 500,000 jobs supported by aviation, is to move to a robust pre-departure testing regime to safely replace quarantine as soon as possible,” said Weiss. “Moving to a pre-departure regime, supported by latest independent evidence, would be twice as effective as quarantine.”

He said passengers should be able to take a test from up to 72 hours before departure, including a rapid test at the airport on the day of departure and called for PCR, LAMP and lateral flow tests to be approved.

“We call on the Government to follow the evidence, support industry trials, and lead the way in allowing free movement of people and goods to resume,” he added. “We hope that testing will also lead the way for US borders to open to UK travellers.”

Ryanair said the test to release scheme was “a further step towards opening Britain for Christmas” but “falls short for the hundreds of thousands of British citizens flying home for the festive season”.

“With Covid tests now widely available, the government should remove quarantine restrictions and allow citizens to move freely, once they have a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to arrival,” a spokesperson said.

“To make things easier for our passengers, we have added to our website a list of test centres located close to Ryanair airports, allowing passengers to book their test when booking their flights home.”

Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee said: “A robust test-and-release system will boost the safe restart of international travel, increase consumer confidence and pave the way towards an open Global Britain.”

She said the announcement was a “big step forward” and could pave the way for pre-departure tests and faster, cheaper testing methods “to make international travel ever easier and ultimately eliminate any need for quarantine altogether”.

Dee also welcomed the government’s financial support package for airports as a “much-needed boost”

“We are pleased that the government has listened to our calls for business rates relief for airports in England,” she said. “The measures will provide much-needed support to many embattled airports, helping them through the challenging months ahead.

“However, not all airports will see full business rates relief and all of aviation will continue to face considerable challenges over the coming months and years. We will therefore need to continue to work with government on what other steps can be taken to safeguard the UK’s aviation businesses.”

Henry Smith MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group Future of Aviation, said the testing announcement was “positive news”.

He said: “It will allow the restart [of] commercial air travel with confidence once restrictions are lifted.  It also provides much needed clarity and certainty which will be essential to these sectors’ recovery from the deeply damaging effects of this pandemic.”

Dale Keller, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (BARUK) said: ”Airlines have been clear to the government that passenger testing is the single most effective way to get Britain flying again and reconnected to the global economy.

“With this announcement, passengers can now book in the confidence that they will travel in safe, clean and secure environments created by the world’s airlines and airports, and no longer need to endure a 14-day quarantine on their return.

“We are particularly pleased the government acted upon our proposals that passengers should have the option to order a home testing kit rather than travel potentially long distances to take a test.

“We believe that testing creates the opportunity for the devolved nations and Westminster to implement a unified international arrival experience across the whole of the UK, and by working closely with industry can continue on the critical path towards safely removing quarantine entirely for all passengers.”

UKinbound chief executive Joss Croft said: “Implementing testing after five days and reducing quarantine is a step in the right direction but the prospect of visitors having to self-isolate for any length of time will continue to significantly impede demand and therefore risk jobs in the UK’s valuable inbound tourism industry.

“Tourism is a competitive business, and when we can travel again, we need a best-in-class testing regime, negating the need for a lengthy self-isolation, otherwise competitors who do have these systems will reap the benefit.

“Tourism will be able to significantly aid the UK’s economic recovery but right now businesses are struggling to survive and until a more rigorous system is in place, international visitors will not return in numbers.

“The government needs to provide a targeted resilience fund for inbound tourism businesses and access to grants from which they have previously been excluded, to ensure they can survive the winter.”

Which? Travel editor Rory Boland called for a co-ordinated approach to opening up foreign travel.

“While the government says it hopes this development will give people more confidence to book a trip to these destinations, it also continues to warn against non-essential travel to those same places through its own FCDO advice. This risks causing confusion as to whether travel to these countries is being encouraged or not,” he said.

“People travelling to these countries will find their travel insurance is invalidated, and may risk losing significant sums of money if tour operators interpret this as a green light to resume holidays despite warnings remaining in place, so the government must ensure it co-ordinates its approach to opening up international travel.

“Which? recently found more than £1 billion in refunds for travel cancelled due to coronavirus was still owed to passengers, so a major overhaul of travel industry rules will be needed before many people feel confident to book their next holiday.

“Holiday companies and airlines must ensure those who cannot travel are allowed to rebook without penalty, while the government must look to strengthen the enforcement of existing protections so passengers can rely on operators to safeguard their money and process refunds swiftly when they are due.”

British Airline Pilots’ Association general secretary Brian Strutton said: “At long last the government is starting to unwind the policies that have crippled the UK aviation industry but it is not enough and further urgent action is necessary.

“Confirmation of the lifting of the ban on international leisure travel, introducing the option of a shorter quarantine period and direct financial support for airports is a hat-trick of welcome news.

“But it is vital that more is done urgently to give customers the confidence to book holidays for next year and businesses the confidence that U.K. aviation can cope post-Brexit in 38 days time.

“Critically, government should firstly set a date when it aims to replace quarantining with airport testing so that everyone can plan towards that and secondly government should support the operational and skills infrastructure that will be needed for aviation to recover.”

John Irving, chief executive of Liverpool John Lennon airport, said: “We are naturally pleased to hear that the Government has recognised the need to help our industry and this is an encouraging step in the right direction. However further improvements to this test and release system will still need to be made in order to see passengers return to flying in far greater numbers. In the short term cheaper and quicker tests are needed and to ultimately eliminate any need for quarantine altogether.

He said the announcement “will make it more attractive for passengers looking to travel from here over the coming weeks” and welcomed the “long-awaited financial support specific to our industry” from the Treasury, which he dubbed “vital as we look to face the challenging months ahead and hopefully see the start of what will undoubtedly be a slow recovery.”

Bristol airport chief executive Dave Lees said: “As an industry we have called on government to urgently accelerate a scientifically sound testing regime for customers arriving into the UK which would safeguard public health, reduce the quarantine period, remove uncertainty and allow businesses and passengers to make informed travel choices.

“Passengers will now have the confidence to book international travel in the knowledge that, from 15 December, they can return home and isolate for a shorter period if they have received a negative test.

“These measures will be essential for enabling and stimulating international travel for as long as we are living with this virus.”

Responding to the government’s financial aid for airports, he added: “The aviation sector has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic and Bristol airport, along with airports across the UK, has never had the opportunity to recover.

“We have continued to highlight the urgent need for immediate additional economic support for the winter and steps to support recovery.”

The announcement “appears to be a welcome relief during what has been the most challenging period in our history,” he said, warning: “Hundreds of jobs and our economic recovery are on the line.”

A spokesperson for Doncaster Sheffield airport, said the announcements were “a step in the right direction for what has been a punishing year for airports”, adding: “The aviation industry has done everything within its power to give customers confidence to get up in the air, such as favourable terms to give passengers flexibility, and both airlines and airports have put in place rigorous Covid-secure health and safety measures. We hope that today’s announcement from the Government brings some clarity so we can offer our customers the reassurances they so desperately need.”

Richard Burge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “London businesses have been greatly impacted by a loss of tourism and business travel revenue in 2020.

“Whilst it is welcome that the government’s travel quarantine policy is evolving and will boost the aviation sector through an upturn in holidays, I feel it’s unlikely to boost inbound visits and business travel.

“To really recover the capital’s economy and its global influence, we need the policy to rapidly evolve further to ensure either pre-departure testing, or on arrival.

“Whilst we await full detail, it is welcome that the government has also provided long-overdue financial support to London’s airports, to help them during a period where low footfall is likely to continue.”

The reduced quarantine will not be enough to resuscitate meaningful business travel, the World Travel & Tourism Council believes.

Quarantines need to be reduced even further or completely replaced with a comprehensive and internationally recognised test upon departure for corporate travel to be revived.

This is the only way to get business travellers moving again until a vaccine becomes widely available.

WTTC president and chief executive Gloria Guevara said: “Cutting the hugely disruptive 14-day quarantine to just five days with a test, albeit a rather expensive one, will be welcomed throughout the travel and tourism sector as real progress.

“However, whilst it may provide the shot in the arm needed to bring about the return of some international leisure travel, it is simply not enough to bring back the economically boosting business travel.

“A single internationally recognised cost-effective test for all departing air passengers should be used to remove crippling quarantines and begin the gradual process to revive international travel, save the sector and bring back millions of jobs around the globe.”

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