Doctorcall chief executive Dr Charles Levinson makes the case for pre-departure Covid testing
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s a motto applicable to many corners of our lives, but especially when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions.
It is well accepted that the government has made a dog’s breakfast of its policies relating to the travel and hospitality industry this year, so I’m grateful for any steps in the right direction through the recent ‘test to release’ scheme.
But friends and colleagues in the industries have asked me one question repeatedly since the new system was announced, ‘what has taken them so long?’ Quite honestly, I don’t know.
The day five test and release idea is not a particularly clever or complex one, nor does it give people enough reason to get back in the skies to either leave, or visit the UK.
It’s forgotten by many that quarantine doesn’t just affect airlines. The knock-on impacts are devastating.
Take the hotel industry, for example, many are going bust because of quarantine restrictions. Across the country hotels lay empty and owners don’t know whether they can pay the bills. Inbound tourism has been decimated and countless livelihoods have already been lost, with plenty more sadly yet to go. Further reform is needed to save these businesses.
Existing quarantine rules are draconian. After failing to act at the start of the pandemic, the government has overcompensated since with blunt policies which do far more harm than good, and punish the small number of people who actually follow the rules.
Under the existing system, you’re required to remain under house arrest for 14 days. No real support is offered but, remarkably, the enforcement is laughably weak. I have not travelled this year so have not had to deal with it, but we would be kidding ourselves if we think 100% of arrivals are following the rules to the letter.
Change was needed, but many in the industry are concerned the new measures – which apply from December 15 – do not go far enough. For many families it simply isn’t possible to add five days of isolation on to a holiday or for an overseas visitor to the UK, and that’s if you get your result on the same day as your test. How much will this raise demand? I’m not overly optimistic.
We all have to accept that there are no perfect solutions, only trade-offs. No system is going to work exactly as intended, so the challenge is to find a workable combination of rules that allow the industry to get off the ground.
Testing pre-arrival is a tactic that has been deployed successfully by many countries around the world. The UK government is concerned it leaves too much risk on the other end, which is fair, but why not add another test a few days after arrival? There would be no quarantine required in the meantime as the initial test would cover that time. It would completely eliminate the need for quarantine. As I say, it’s not perfect, but no system is.
From a standing start, the testing capacity in this country is now at an impressive level. Private testing providers like Doctorcall have been able to help travellers all year with their pre-arrival tests for many destinations. I have no doubt the private sector’s capacity will be able to meet expected demand. No pressure will be applied to NHS testing, so there is little stopping further testing to be used to rid the need of quarantine altogether.
Government also seriously needs to reassess which countries should be on the travel corridor list. Deeming a country ‘high-risk’ is a little disingenuous considering the levels of infection in the United Kingdom. A more regional focus would be welcome and over the coming months more flexibility and pragmatism is needed.
On the whole, recent developments are an immensely positive step forward, and it would be wrong to claim otherwise. We all know the damage that has been done to the travel and hospitality industries this year, much of it irreparable. Often in times of crisis it’s industries of the past that are swept away first, but that could not be further from the truth for these ones.
Our future is a global one, for that to be a reality we need to give the travel industry the freedom it needs to embrace testing to fully unlock the skies.
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