Journalism in the service of society

UK: Amber list scrapped in overhaul of travel rules in England

By Joseph Lee

THE international travel traffic light system is being simplified in England with a single red list, as part of an overhaul of the rules from 4 October.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps also said eight countries would be taken off the red list from Wednesday.

It means people returning from places such as Turkey will no longer have to stay in hotel quarantine.

And PCR tests will no longer be required for fully vaccinated travellers returning to England.

Under the new testing regime, people who have had both jabs will not need to take a pre-departure test before leaving any country not on the red list.

And Mr Shapps said later in October, they would be able to replace the day two PCR test with a cheaper, rapid lateral flow test.

While travel is a devolved matter, the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish governments have often followed the UK government’s rules during the pandemic.

Wales said it would follow England in removing Turkey, Pakistan, the Maldives, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Oman, Bangladesh and Kenya from the red list. It would “carefully consider” the proposed changes on testing but said they are “not without risk”.

But Scotland ruled out removing the requirement for PCR tests, due to “significant concerns at the impact on public health”.

The transport secretary said the new travel rules would remain in place “at least until the new year”.

“The purpose is to make it easier to travel without the bureaucracy, without so many tests, and with a greater level of certainty now that we’ve got so many people vaccinated,” he said.

The travel industry said the announcement was a step towards helping tourism recover.

Airlines UK said it was a “shot in the arm” that “moves us much closer to the reopening of UK aviation”.

Stewart Wingate, chief executive of Gatwick Airport, said customers can “book with more confidence in the months before Christmas and beyond” and said there was “significant pent-up demand for travel”.

But he said the remaining constraints on travel, such as the need to fill out a passenger locator form, should also be removed.

British Airways’ chief executive and chairman, Sean Doyle, said fewer than 1% of travellers from low-risk countries tested positive and all testing for fully vaccinated travellers should be scrapped “in line with most other European countries”.

Huw Merriman, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Transport Committee, said the changes could have an immediate positive impact on the UK’s travel industry, coming before the October half-term break for schools.

He said the changes addressed the committee’s criticism of “confusing watchlists and quarantines”, the delay in “reaping the benefit” of vaccination levels, and the high costs of PCR tests.

Analysis: Could variants slip through the net?

by Jim Reed

Over the summer, scientists advising the government said that the biggest threat to our health security was a coronavirus variant that could spread faster or was resistant to our current vaccines.

We’ve been bitten by this before. In April the first cases of the Delta variant were spotted in travellers from India.

It started spreading quickly and, by June, it had taken over as the dominant form of the virus in the UK. Later studies suggested it was more contagious and more likely to put those infected in hospital.

Detecting new variants was a key reason why all vaccinated travellers had been told to pay for a private PCR test two days after they arrived back home. We were told that those expensive lab tests were needed to genetically sequence the sample and find out if the next potentially more dangerous variant had arrived.

But critics said that, in reality, the proportion of samples that could be analysed in this way was very low – partly because a certain level of virus was needed for the test to work properly.

The latest figures suggest that between August 12 and September 1 only around 25% of positive cases in travellers arriving in the UK were successfully sequenced.

Under the new plans, fully vaccinated travellers will instead be able to pay for a cheaper, but less sensitive, lateral flow test which can be taken quickly at home.

LFTs cannot be sequenced so anyone who tests positive will be asked to take a second follow up PCR lab test, which will be paid for by the NHS.

But there is a worry that without regular, automatic PCR testing of all samples, more variants could slip through the net and weaken our defences against coronavirus in the future.

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