Government making ‘good progress’ on testing programme to reduce quarantine period

Nov 10, 2020

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.

After months of a strict quarantine-only approach to travel restrictions, there’s hope for an alternative in the future. On Monday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps unveiled that the government’s Global Travel Taskforce has made “good progress” on a testing approach for travellers.

“I want you to know that we’ve been making good progress on a ‘test to release’ programme to launch once we’re out of lockdown,” Shapps said in a speech to the Airport Operators Association on Monday.

The programme would be offered alongside the government’s current 14-day mandatory quarantine for arrivals from certain countries. Under the new plans, if a passenger arrives from a non-travel corridor country, they could see “a much reduced period of self isolation” in conjunction with a single test.

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Unfortunately, the details we know at this point don’t extend far beyond that. As expected, the cost of a test will be at the expense of the traveller. And, since non-essential travel is off the cards for now, the testing programme won’t launch until lockdown ends on 2 December.

Monday’s development is the first of the “Global Travel Taskforce,” the group that was first assembled in October.

The move to adopt an alternative to quarantine would allow holidaymakers looking to head abroad to do so without having to quarantine on return. But even more so, the plan will help offer a lifeline to the struggling travel and aviation industries, which have been upended since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to the taskforce considering how a testing regime for international arrivals could be safely implemented to boost travel to and from the U.K., it will look at what steps the government can take to boost both business and tourist travel using testing and other non-testing means. Finally, the taskforce will look at what steps it can take to increase consumer confidence so passengers feel safe travelling again.

Related: A behind-the-scenes look at how Delta and Virgin Atlantic are cleaning planes at Heathrow

“This new taskforce will not only help us move towards safer, smoother international travel as we continue to battle this virus but will also support global connectivity – helping facilitate more COVID-secure travel whilst protecting the population from imported cases,” Shapps said in October.

Other countries that have introduced similar testing and isolation regulations allow a traveller’s quarantine length to be reduced if they can provide a negative COVID-19 test result — either by a single test or a double-test approach. Barbados, for example, requires that arriving passengers from the U.K. have a negative PCR test result on arrival and then require quarantine at an approved location — at some locations, that means access to its pool facilities. Then, two to three days later, they can take another test. If the second test returns a negative result, the traveller will be able to leave their quarantine.

While the new taskforce is a step, some say that the government hasn’t gone far enough quickly enough.

“Although every step to improve the current situation is welcome, we do not believe quarantine is the solution,” a British Airways spokesperson said. “The best way to reassure people is to introduce a reliable and affordable test before flying.”

Since June, airline and industry executives have called on the government to adopt a testing alternative to travel.

Passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport as they return from Greece, after the Government added the islands of Lesvos, Tinos, Serifos, Mykonos, Crete, Santorini and Zakynthos, also known as Zante to the quarantine list. From 4am on Wednesday, arrivals from the seven Greek islands will need to self-isolate for 14 days - but mainland Greece will maintain its quarantine-exemption. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
(Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

London Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye has been pressuring the government to adopt a testing alternative since the start of the summer. The government, however, has been hesitant to approve anything — until now.

“We support the Government’s decision to opt for a single-test, private sector-led, passenger-funded approach that does not compete for, nor divert, vital NHS testing resources, to reduce travel restrictions while protecting public health,” a Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said of the announcement in October. “But a firm commitment that a comprehensive testing regime will be implemented in November is required to boost consumer confidence, enable global travel and project jobs.”

What does this mean for your holiday?

Unfortunately, at this stage, not much. On Monday, the government solely alluded that a test and quarantine alternative is on the cards.

At this point, all existing restrictions on travel remain in place. More specifically, that means that because of lockdown, all non-essential travel is off the table. For those who have to travel for essential reasons or who are already abroad, the government’s travel corridors approach still remains in place.

Related: All 53 countries, territories and regions that are on the UK’s travel corridor list

In other words, if you have to travel to a country or territory not listed on the government’s travel corridor list, you will have to quarantine for 14 days on return to England. Visitors heading to destinations that are on the list can continue without quarantine on return.

Each Thursday, Shapps announces which destinations will be added or removed from the list for that week. So, for the time being, we will continue to follow those announcements.

For an airline like Virgin Atlantic, of which 70% of its operations rely on the popular transatlantic market, reopening travel to the U.S. is critical. Not only does the U.K. government need to establish a way for Brits to travel to the U.S. without a two-week quarantine on return, but the U.S. government needs to open up its borders to travellers coming from the U.K.

For now, travel restrictions are business as usual — the same that they have been since early summer. We will continue to follow the Global Travel Taskforce and its findings.

Featured photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images.

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