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UK moving toward shorter quarantine period for travellers

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • By early December, if enough rapid COVID-detecting tests are available, the UK may institute a “test and release” plan that will shorten the quarantine period for most international arrivals to about one week
  • The “travel corridors” list of countries whose citizens do not have to self-isolate upon arrival in the UK is continually updated and, most recently, Italy has been removed from the list

The UK has a new cross-government Global Travel Taskforce headed by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the Secretary of State for Transport. Its aim is to provide relief to the COVID-disrupted travel industry through reforms designed to boost travel to the country. One of the first recommendations of the taskforce is the establishment of a new “test and release” regime that would shorten quarantine times for arrivals who are not on the UK’s “travel corridors” list (i.e., the list of countries whose citizens can come to the UK without needing to self-isolate).

The travel corridors list is continually updated given the evolving spread of COVID across the world; some countries are added because their infection rate lowers, and some are removed because their situation gets worse. Most of the travel going into the UK is from European countries on the list. Unfortunately the number of countries on the list has fallen since it was first launched in July due to the prolonged grip of the pandemic in so many regions; travellers from over 60 countries must currently submit to a 14-day quarantine period.

Italy falls off the list

Because of its worsening COVID situation, Italy has been removed from the travel corridors list as of 18 October, meaning that Italian travellers now also have to self-isolate for 14 days when they come to the UK. The requirement for Italians to quarantine comes as another blow for the country’s ELT sector. In 2019, Italian students accounted for 27% of UK ELT enrolments in 2019, and just over 14% of all student weeks.

Indeed, all of the top five sending markets for UK ELT currently remain off the travel corridors list. Those leading source countries – including China, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and France – collectively accounted for nearly half of all student weeks in 2019.

What is “test and release”?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is hopeful that by 1 December, a new protocol can be in place that would allow arrivals to the UK who are not on the travel corridors list to self-isolate for about a week:

“My ministerial colleagues and I have agreed a regime, based on a single test provided by the private sector and at the cost to the passenger, after a period of self-isolation. It will mean a single test for international arrivals, a week after arrival.”

His task force aims to present the recommendation in early November. The plan is contingent on the private sector having an adequate supply of tests. Mr Shapps said that discussions are underway with more than a dozen firms to assess which rapid tests can be made available.

But there is pushback from the aviation industry, where stakeholders believe that reducing mandatory quarantine from two weeks to one week will not have a major impact on convincing more travellers to fly to the UK. Instead, argues British Airways’ CEO Sean Doyle, there should be a “fundamental rethink” of the UK’s approach to flying during COVID. Mr Doyle is pushing for a “reliable and affordable” pre-departure test that would be taken by travellers wanting to fly to the UK.

Mr Doyle’s skepticism about the effectiveness of any test and release system is echoed by the aviation industry’s peak body, Airlines UK, whose chief executive, Tim Alderslade, said:

“Eight days, plus one or two days to get the results, isn’t going to have the impact we want. If you look at the average number of days people stay in the UK, from the US it’s about four days. Eight days isn’t going to cut the mustard.”

Though Mr Shapps says that his task force is looking into a pre-departure test, he says that a barrier to rapid implementation is the need for international cooperation through the International Civil Aviation Organization:

“We’re talking to the US homeland security and others. We’d like to get trials set up. That could involve a series of tests that could involve quarantine before and after flights – or ultimately no quarantine at all if the technology is there for a rapid tests. But that requires international cooperation.”

The CEO of London Heathrow, John Holland-Kaye, added:

“The Government’s Global Travel Taskforce is a great step forward but needs to act quickly to save the millions of UK jobs that rely on aviation. Implementing “test and release” after 5 days of quarantine would kick start the economy. But the government could show real leadership by working with the US to develop a Common International Standard for pre-departure testing that would mean that only COVID-free passengers are allowed to travel from high risk countries.”

The 1.2 million passengers who arrived at Heathrow in September represents a decline of 82% compared to 2019. Restrictions on travel between the US and UK are having a particularly devastating impact, with the UK economy losing an estimated £32 million a day due to air travel with the US being closed.

For additional background, please see:

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