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People arriving in England will be soon able to reduce their quarantine period by more than half if they pay for a Covid test after five days, the transport secretary has announced.
The rules will come into force from 15 December and the tests from private firms will cost between £65 and £120.
Grant Shapps said the scheme would “bolster international travel while keeping the public safe”.
The travel industry welcomed the policy but described it as “long overdue”.
It follows Boris Johnson’s announcement earlier that England will come under “toughened” three-tiered regional restrictions when the lockdown ends on 2 December.
Under the new travel rules, passengers who arrive from a destination not on the government’s travel corridors list will still need to enter self-isolation.
However, if they pay for a test after five days and it comes back negative, they will no longer need to self-isolate.
Results will normally be issued in 24 to 48 hours. This means people could be released from quarantine six days after arrival.
Mr Shapps said: “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.”
A step in the right direction – that’s how airlines are describing the government’s decision to ease the quarantine regime.
The industry is in survival mode, desperate for money – so anything that could open up routes and bring in much-needed cash is being welcomed. And this does raise the prospect of Christmas holiday ticket sales.
But they say the new plan is still far from perfect.
Passengers will still have to go into quarantine – and realistically, a test on day five is still likely to leave them in isolation for the best part of a week in total, as they wait for the results to come through.
There’s also the cost. The test has to be done privately, and typical prices range from £100-150. For a family of four, for example, that’s a sizeable extra chunk on the cost of a winter holiday.
What airlines are calling for is something more radical. They want a pre-departure testing regime, or a system of quick, regular and cheap tests – which would allow quarantine to be avoided altogether, until a vaccine is ready.
But they say this announcement means there is, at least, some light at the end of the tunnel.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the industry association representing UK-registered carriers, said the announcement provided “light at the end of the tunnel” for the aviation industry and people wanting to go on holiday.
He predicted demand for air travel will “tentatively return” following the decision but said a pre-departure testing regime that can completely remove the need to self-isolate is “the only way we’re going to comprehensively reopen the market”.
On Monday, the prime minister – who is self-isolating after meeting an MP who later tested positive for Covid-19 – told the House of Commons via a video link that he expected “more regions will fall – at least temporarily – into higher levels than before”. Regions will not find out which tier they are in until Thursday.
Describing how the tiers had become stricter, Mr Johnson said that in tier one, people should continue to work from home where possible, while in tier two, only pubs serving substantial meals can serve alcohol. In tier three, hospitality will close except for delivery and takeaway, and indoor entertainment venues must also close.
However, gyms and non-essential shops will be allowed to reopen when the lockdown ends, and spectators will be allowed to return to some sporting events. Weddings and collective worship will also resume.
It comes as the coronavirus vaccine developed by the University of Oxford has been shown in large trials to be highly effective at stopping people developing symptoms of Covid-19.
Interim data suggests 70% protection, but the researchers say the figure may be as high as 90% by tweaking the dose.
The PM said said it was “incredibly exciting news” and that while there were still safety checks to come, “these are fantastic results”.
He told a Downing Street briefing on Monday that the majority of people most in need of a vaccination in the UK might be able to get one by Easter.
Mr Johnson also warned that the virus would not grant a “Christmas truce” and urged families to make a “careful judgement about the risks of visiting elderly relatives” ahead of a UK-wide approach to Christmas being announced later this week.
Meanwhile, a further 15,450 positive coronavirus cases were recorded across the UK on Monday. There have also been a further 206 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. Figures can be lower on a Monday, due to a lag in reporting.