Even as the suspension of air traffic between the UK and India was lifted, tougher pre-departure Covid tests will continue to suppress travel between the two countries for some time to come.
Flights between the UK and India, which were suspended since December-end to control the spread of a new highly transmissible variant of coronavirus found in the UK, resumed on Friday. Air traffic between the two nations has been operating within the air bubble arrangement for some time now, which has meant largely rescue and essential travel.
While India had always had a pre-landing Covid-19 PCR test requirement for international passengers, the UK is bringing in its own pre-departure compulsory tests as part of efforts to control the spread of other transmissible variants – found in countries such as South Africa and Denmark.
The acceleration of the rate of infections in the UK has already meant Prime Minister Boris Johnson having to call off his highly-anticipated post-Brexit visit to New Delhi for Republic Day on January 26 and with the tougher new rules now coming in, travel will remain constrained for some time to come.
International arrivals from anywhere in the world, including India, will now be required to prove a negative Covid-19 test result before departure for the UK, taken up to 72 hours prior to departure.
Passengers will be subject to an immediate fine of £500 if they fail to comply with the new regulations on pre-departure testing as part of new measures. Starting next week, inbound passengers arriving by boat, plane or train will have to take a test up to 72 hours before departing the country they are in and could be denied boarding without this.
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “We already have significant measures in place to prevent imported cases of Covid-19, but with new strains of the virus developing internationally we must take further precautions.
“Taken together with the existing mandatory self-isolation period for passengers returning from high-risk countries, pre-departure tests will provide a further line of defence – helping us control the virus as we roll out the vaccine at pace over the coming weeks.”
Prior to departure passengers will need to present proof of a negative Covid-19 test result to carriers, as well as fill out a passenger locator form, which was already in force. The UK Border Force will conduct spot checks on arrival into England to ensure that passengers are fully compliant, the government said, adding that the test could be either in the form of PCR tests or lateral flow tests currently available to detect coronavirus but that further details will be laid out in the coming days.
The move is intended to “further bolster” existing protective measures, with self-isolation for new arrivals and travel corridors remaining critical in reducing the risk of imported cases from high-risk countries. Passengers arriving from countries not on the government’s travel corridor list must continue to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their pre-departure test result.
The UK remains under a nationwide lockdown, requiring everyone to stay at home unless travelling for a very limited set of reasons. Permitted international travellers will need to take their test up to 72 hours before departure, and this will apply irrespective of whether a country is on the travel corridor list, which includes India. The government will set out further details on the standards that the tests will need to meet in the coming days and what proof passengers will need to present.
Those not on the UK’s travel corridor list will still have the option to reduce the self-isolation period from 10 to as little as five days by paying for a second test through the Test to Release scheme. The scheme requires a test to be taken on or after the fifth full day since leaving a country not on the travel corridor list.
The tests have been widely welcomed by the industry as a route out of the compulsory self-isolation requirements, which has hit the airline industry particularly hard.
Heathrow Airport chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said he welcomed new rules to keep the country and indeed the world safe but said having pre-departure testing on top of quarantine should only be a temporary measure.
He said: “There needs to be a plan for what’s going to come next so that we can start to get aviation back to some level of normality while keeping people safe.
“What we’d like to see is that testing before you take off becomes the standard as an alternative to quarantine.”
And, as the UK battles a particularly steep curve of rising infections rates and hospitalisations as a result of coronavirus, testing would serve as a crucial means of keeping travel options open – not least for the thousands of Indian students who would be keen to begin or continue their university courses in Britain for the year.