Travellers arriving in England will be able to end their quarantine period with a negative coronavirus test after five days from December 15, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced.
The travel industry welcomed the policy but described it as “long overdue”.
Under the new rules, passengers who arrive from a destination not on the Government’s travel corridors list will still need to enter self-isolation.
But they can reduce the 14-day period by paying for a test from a private firm on or after day five at a cost of £65-£120.
Results will normally be issued in 24 to 48 hours. This means people could be released from quarantine six days after arrival.
The change does not apply to people arriving in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, who must continue to self-isolate for 14 days.
Mr Shapps said: “We have a plan in place to ensure that our route out of this pandemic is careful and balanced, allowing us to focus on what we can now do to bolster international travel while keeping the public safe.
“Our new testing strategy will allow us to travel more freely, see loved ones and drive international business. By giving people the choice to test on day five, we are also supporting the travel industry as it continues to rebuild out of the pandemic.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “This test on day five of the 14-day self-isolation period will identify positive coronavirus cases and allow those who test negative to return to work and see their loved ones while abiding by domestic coronavirus restrictions.
“This will be done at the cost of the traveller to protect the capacity of NHS Test and Trace and ensure that any UK resident who has symptoms is able to get a test.”
However, Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary was sceptical about the move.
He told the BBC: “I think the idea is not very well thought-out.
“I think the problem with this system in the UK is that you only have to isolate for five days. And we know that people simply don’t isolate.”
Mr O’Leary said it would be more effective to test passengers before they get on a flight.
In response, Mr Shapps said: “At the moment, from a medical science point of view, that doesn’t really work.
“You need to have a period during which the incubation could have taken place, during which people haven’t been mixing with others.”
Pressed on a move to pre-flight tests, Mr Shapps said: “It’s not that it’s a no way, it’s at the moment that the medical evidence doesn’t justify it.
“What may come along, later on, is with these lateral flow tests, is the ability to test on several days in a row, and, indeed, actually remove things like quarantine or self-isolation.”
Very much welcome today's announcement by @grantshapps of an aviation testing regime. By more than halving quarantine its a good start, and there is now light at the end of the tunnel for carriers and consumers. Our thoughts in full: 👇https://t.co/I5si4sD66t
— Airlines UK (@airlines_UK) November 24, 2020
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the industry association representing UK-registered carriers, said the announcement on limited quarantine provides “light at the end of the tunnel” for the aviation industry and people wanting to go on holiday.
He predicted that demand for air travel will “tentatively return” following the decision but said a pre-departure or domestic testing regime that can completely remove the need to self-isolate is “the only way we’re going to comprehensively reopen the market”.
Mark Tanzer, chief executive of travel trade organisation Abta, said: “The test to release scheme in England should help to make overseas travel more attractive and manageable for both holidaymakers and business travellers.
“There is still more work to be done to get more people travelling and to support the recovery of the sector, including having a testing scheme in place for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the Government moving to a regional approach to quarantine and travel advice.”
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: “It’s a much-needed and long overdue step forward to helping the travel sector recover further.
“But we still have a complex jigsaw puzzle of restrictions around the world that need tourists to have a high IQ to understand. We need to see global consistency for travel to fully take off.”
The Government also announced that it will introduce new financial support for English airports and ground handling firms in the new year.
The support will cover business rates liabilities up to £8 million at each site.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “The aviation industry is vital to our economy – creating jobs and driving growth – which is why we have supported them throughout this crisis through the Job Retention Scheme, loans and tax deferrals.
“This new package of support for airports, alongside a new testing regime for international arrivals, will help the sector take off once again as we build back better from the pandemic.”