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Airports demand relaxation of Covid testing rules

Written by: Emma Lunn
Manchester and Gatwick airports have both hit out at the Covid testing regime for travellers as passenger numbers fall.

Manchester Airport is calling for an end to expensive PCR tests, while Gatwick says the government must act to simplify travel requirements to improve passenger confidence in international travel.

Karen Smart, managing director at Manchester Airport, said the UK’s traffic light system and travel restrictions mean the country’s aviation sector is recovering at just half the rate of the rest of Europe.

The government has said PCR testing is needed to enable genomic sequencing to take place to identify variants of concern, but the latest official data shows only about 5% of tests are actually being sent for sequencing and brings into question the need for passengers to take these tests.

Smart said: “We won’t see a proper sustained recovery until the UK overhauls its costly and restrictive travel regime, which is out of step with the rest of Europe. UK passengers continue to be subjected to onerous and expensive PCR testing on the basis they will be sequenced to protect the UK from variants of concern, but it is clear this is not happening.

“Passengers – especially those who are fully vaccinated – will be right to question why they are forced to pay the extra cost for tests which are not being used in the way we were told they would be.”

Passenger levels at Manchester Airport were 85.9% down on July 2019, when the airport served 3,178,505 passengers, compared to just 447,954 in the same month this year.

The airport said that since the review of the traffic light system on 4 August – which saw more countries added to the green and amber lists – volumes have picked up slightly but remain significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

Gatwick passenger numbers were very low at just 569,000 in the first six months of 2021. While the airport remained open throughout, all revenue streams were impacted and the collapse in passenger demand along with government restrictions led to a £244.6m loss for the six-month period.

Gatwick is calling for the government to scrap test requirements for travellers from green list countries and for double vaccinated travellers from amber countries. It suggests non-vaccinated passengers arriving in the UK from amber countries could take a single lateral flow test.

Currently, anyone arriving back in England from a green list country needs to take a pre-departure test up to 72 hours before their return travel, and a single PCR test on or before day two of arrival into England. However, they will not need to quarantine.

Arrivals in the UK from amber countries no longer need to self-isolate for 10 days if they have been fully vaccinated. However, a Covid test is needed three days before returning from an amber country, and a PCR test two days after arriving. Those arriving from Spain are being asked to use a PCR test for the first of those two tests.

Unvaccinated travellers from amber countries need to quarantine for 10 days and take a PCR test on or before day 2 and on or after day 8 after arriving in the UK.

The UK’s blanket requirement for PCR testing and pre-departure testing differs dramatically to the approach taken by most European countries, which are allowing fully vaccinated passengers to travel between low-risk destinations without having to take any tests.

PCR tests can cost anything from £20 to £500, prompting calls to cap test costs at £40. The Competition and Markets Authority has also launched a probe into Covid test costs.

Stewart Wingate, chief executive at Gatwick Airport, said: “In the UK we are all emerging to enjoy more freedoms due to our world class vaccination programme, however we are in danger of squandering the advantage that vaccination programme has afforded us for international travel. Our government needs to act now and remove unnecessary and costly PCR testing requirements for passengers, particularly for those double vaccinated.”

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