Industry chiefs have slammed the Government’s decision to re-introduce pre-departure tests at short notice, just after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ruled out the move.
Speaking on a podcast aired on Friday (but apparently recorded last Wednesday), Mr Shapps acknowledged that pre-departure tests for all travellers risked killing off the travel industry.
But on Saturday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that, from 4am on Tuesday, all arrivals in England, from the age of 12, will have to take a negative COVID test no more than 48 hours before they board their plane, train or ferry.
Later, Mr Shapps defended the decision, and his earlier reassurance that pre-departure tests would not be re-introduced, in a tweet. He said: “Worth noting my pre-recorded comments about pre-departure tests were made earlier in the week and the situation moved on…”
The new rule for negative pre-departure tests applies equally to vaccinated and non-vaccinated travellers.
Mr Sajid also announced an expansion of the red list, with Nigeria becoming the 11th country from which arrivals must go into managed hotel quarantine due to the emergence of a number of cases of Omicron in the African nation.
The pre-departure test can be a PCR or antigen, which means travellers can buy self-testing kits to take with them on holiday to test before departure.
However, the late announcement of the rule change on Saturday evening left some travel agents scrambling to find test centres for clients who were already overseas, especially those on family trips to Lapland.
Mr Javid said the reintroduction of pre-departure tests was ‘a temporary measure’ and he promised it would be removed as soon as possible.
He insisted the UK had needed to act quickly to try to limit the spread of the Omicron variant until more is known about its severity.
But Advantage CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said said pre-departure tests ‘will be a fatal bullet for many travel agents’.
At the AITO conference for specialist independent travel companies last week, industry accountant Jonathan Wall had already predicted that Omicron ‘could be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back’ for some travel businesses.
Speaking to Travel Gossip just prior to Mr Javid’s announcement, Jonathan said: “There are undoubtedly going to be more failures, I would say we will be looking at a ‘significant few’.”
Business Travel Association Chief Executive Clive Wratten said he felt ‘a little broken mentally’ by Mr Javid’s announcement.
Scotland immediately followed England’s lead in reintroducing pre-departure test and placing Nigeria on the red list.
Joanne Dooey, president of The Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association described the moves as ‘a crushing blow for the travel sector in Scotland’, adding: “Travel agents are truly battle weary. The confidence which was returning to international travel will be stamped out following this announcement.
“It leaves everyone currently overseas, who has a scheduled return to the UK from 4am this Tuesday, scrambling to find testing which meets the Scottish government regulations.
“We expect that travel agents’ phones will be ringing off the hook with customers who wish to cancel or postpone their holidays, business trips and Christmas visits to families overseas.
“The previous relaxation of the testing regime for travellers and the removal of a red list had led to the first proper period of trading for travel agents since early 2020.
“The reintroduction of pre departure testing and the fact that countries can be placed on the ‘red list’ with less than 48 hours’ notice will plunge agents back into a chaotic world of client repatriations where countries can be red listed at the drop of a hat.
“The damage being wreaked on the Scottish travel sector – which is worth £1.466 to our economy – is incalculable.
“Unlike the hospitality sector, which can start to generate revenue the minute restrictions are lifted, travel agents do not receive a penny of income until the time a customer travels.
“Our colleagues were just beginning to return a position to generate income in recent weeks following more than two years of zero income. It’s an atrocious position for travel agents to be in after such dire trading positions throughout the pandemic and we’re asking that the Scottish government recognises that our members need sector specific support and they need it urgently.”
ABTA said: “The re-introduction of pre-departure tests will be a huge blow to travellers and an already devastated travel industry, which has been the hardest hit sector throughout the crisis and which is now fast approaching the key booking season for next summer.
“While we have always been clear that public health must be the priority at this time, the Government must now step up to save jobs and businesses. The industry needs financial support, which recognises these measures will significantly weaken demand and the Chancellor must now consider the reintroduction of furlough for travel industry to avoid further job losses.
“Travellers must also be supported with measures taken to offset the cost of these additional tests by reducing the cost of PCR testing – including a price cap and the removal of VAT. It’s vitally important this decision is reversed as quickly as possible, in line with scientific and medical advice, as it is simply not possible for the travel industry to recover properly while this huge barrier to consumer confidence is in place.”