EDITORIAL: UK’s New Travel Rules Are Inconsistent And Bring Their Own Risks

Credit: London Heathrow Airport

The latest UK travel rules will add unwanted cost and complexity for airlines, airports and passengers, but will they actually prevent new coronavirus variants from entering the country?

UK health secretary Matt Hancock has announced that all international passengers will have to pay for three mandatory COVID-19 tests and quarantine for 10 days, with effect from Feb. 15.

Residents returning from 33 “red list” countries will also have to pay £1,750 ($2,402) for a mandatory 10-day hotel stay.

UK Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth quizzed Hancock on the validity of the red list, observing that over half of the countries where the new South African variant has been detected are not mentioned.

Hancock said the red list would be updated. That list currently includes Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Portugal, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In total, 18 of the red-list entries are located in or near Africa. A further 13 are in or near South America. The final two are Portugal and the UAE.

However, the US, with over 26.7 million COVID-19 cases to date and the highest death rate, is notably absent.

As well as topping the WHO world leader board in terms of absolute numbers, the US has also recorded 690 cases of the UK-identified B.1.1.7 lineage variant, six cases of the B.1.351 variant found in South Africa and three cases of the P.1 variant that was first identified in travelers from Brazil during routine testing in Japan, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So why is the US not on the UK red list?

Airlines also face fines if they do not ensure that passengers have signed up for the new arrangements before they travel.

On the same day as the new measures were announced, the BBC reported first-hand stories from people who are selling and using fake COVID-19 test certificates for travel. One traveler said the cost of testing motivated her to risk it. Under the new rules, two additional tests are required, potentially tripling the cost. It seems reasonable to assume that the more stringent and costly rules could persuade more people to seek or to sell fraudulent test certificates (which are apparently getting through the system) despite the risk of punishment if caught.

Airlines, airports, passengers and corporations are struggling to keep pace with the frequent rule changes. These are made even more confusing because England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own set of COVID-19 restrictions.

The UK was late to adopt testing, quick to enforce quarantines and has already rolled out several schemes, including travel corridors, which closed on Jan. 18, and the “test to release” initiative, which was immediately overwhelmed because the list of approved companies was not released until the evening before the scheme launched. The new hotel quarantine rule may be similarly challenged; full guidance on how that will work and how to book won’t be released until four days before the restrictions come into force.

The UK understandably wants to control virus transmission risk. But the new rules bring their own risks, not least of which is dealing a final stab to the country’s air transport and travel industry and economy.

Victoria Moores

Victoria Moores joined Air Transport World as our London-based European Editor/Bureau Chief on 18 June 2012. Victoria has nearly 20 years’ aviation industry experience, spanning airline ground operations, analytical, journalism and communications roles.