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Tests for travellers before they arrive in England are to be scrapped, Boris Johnson has announced, with travel industry bosses already reporting a ‘massive surge’ in bookings. 

In what marks a huge boost for holidaymakers, the Prime Minister said in a Commons statement the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease.

He told MPs the requirement for travellers to self-isolate on arrival until they receive a negative PCR test is also being dropped. 

Instead, the rules will revert to the system in place in October, with travellers required to take a lateral flow test no later than the end of day two after their arrival.

The measures were originally introduced following the identification of the fast-spreading Omicron variant in South Africa last November.

Families are already booking half-term breaks since the end of PCRs means around a £300 saving for a family of four, 

Travel firms welcomed the news, with the boss of airline Jet2, Steve Heapy, revealing there had already been a ‘massive surge’ in web traffic and bookings following Mr Johnson’s announcement.

Overseas tests and day 2 PCR tests added hundreds of pounds to the cost of foreign breaks for families, discouraging many from embarking on trips abroad. 

Covid tests for travellers arriving in England are to be scrapped, Boris Johnson has announced, in a major boost for the beleaguered travel industry

Covid tests for travellers arriving in England are to be scrapped, Boris Johnson has announced, in a major boost for the beleaguered travel industry

In what marks a huge boost for holidaymakers, the Prime Minister said in a Commons statement the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease

In what marks a huge boost for holidaymakers, the Prime Minister said in a Commons statement the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease

Mr Johnson told the House: ‘When the Omicron variant was first identified, we rightly introduced travel restrictions to slow its arrival in our country.

Testing regime that has been scrapped as the Omicron threat dwindles:

Travelling home from another country has been a nightmare for may due to new restrictions amid Omicron.

The rules for the fully vaccinated, which will change from 4am on Friday, are…

Before travel: 

  • Take a test in the 2 days before travel to England
  • Book a PCR test to be taken after you arrive in England
  • Complete a passenger locator form

On arrival:

  • Take a PCR test
  • Take the test any time after arrival and before the end of day 2
  • Quarantine in your home or the place you are staying

‘But now Omicron is so prevalent, these measures are having limited impact on the growth in cases, while continuing to pose significant costs on our travel industry.

‘So I can announce that in England from 4am on Friday, we will be scrapping the pre-departure test, which discourages many from travelling for fear of being trapped overseas and incurring significant extra expense.’

The announcement – which covers those passengers who are fully vaccinated or are under the age of 18 – was broadly welcomed by the travel industry, which has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said it would be a ‘massive boost’ for the sector at a ‘critical’ time of the year.

‘People will now be able to book knowing that – for the fully vaccinated – all emergency testing restrictions have been removed,’ he said.

‘Today marks an important step towards learning to live alongside the virus, helping passengers and the travel sector look ahead to what will be an all-important spring and summer season.’

EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren also welcomed the move but said the Government needed to go further.

‘This will make travel much simpler and easier and means our customers can book and travel with confidence,’ he said.

‘However, the Government must now urgently take the final step towards restriction-free travel and remove the last remaining unnecessary test for vaccinated travellers so flying does not become the preserve of the rich.’

Steve Heapy, CEO of Jet2.com and Jet2holidays said: ‘It is abundantly clear to everyone that travel testing requirements have had no impact on the spread of the Omicron variant, so this should represent the end of a set of measures that are not only disproportionate but futile too. 

‘That said, the removal of these travel restrictions is the news that our customers have been desperate to hear, and the massive surge in traffic and bookings tells us that holidays are very much back on for UK holidaymakers. 

‘Customers are jumping at the chance to book the holidays they have been looking forward to and we want to give them even more to smile about, which is why we are launching this sale.’

He added: ‘Whether it is a family holiday, a break with the other half or a group get together, we know how much everyone needs that well-deserved holiday. 

‘Holidays just got a lot easier and whether it is sun, ski or a leisure city holiday, we can see just what a shot in the arm today is for customer confidence.’ 

Travel firms welcomed the news of reduced testing, with the boss of airline Jet2, Steve Heapy (pictured), revealing there had already been a 'massive surge' in web traffic and bookings following Mr Johnson's announcement

Travel firms welcomed the news of reduced testing, with the boss of airline Jet2, Steve Heapy (pictured), revealing there had already been a ‘massive surge’ in web traffic and bookings following Mr Johnson’s announcement

Epidemiologist John Edmunds, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the move to scrap overseas tests before arriving in England and day 2 PCR tests in favour of a single day 2 LFT test made sense.

‘When the prevalence is high, and it is incredibly high at the moment, almost everyone who tests positive with a lateral flow test will be a true positive,’ Edmunds said. 

‘There is really no need to confirm this with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere.’

A spokesman for Heathrow Airport said: ‘Although this is welcome news, there is still a long way back for aviation which remains the lifeblood of the UK’s economy, supporting millions of jobs in all four nations.’

The UK was the only country in Europe demanding that even fully-vaccinated holidaymakers take two tests when returning home.

Under the current rules, one rapid swab must be taken pre-return within 72 hours of travel to the UK and a post-arrival PCR test by day two.

Travellers must self-isolate until the results of this latter test are received, and can be stuck in quarantine for days if results are delayed.  

Under the current rules, one rapid swab must be taken pre-return within 72 hours of travel to the UK and a post-arrival PCR test by day two. Travellers must self-isolate until the results of this latter test are received, and can be stuck in quarantine for days if results are delayed.

Under the current rules, one rapid swab must be taken pre-return within 72 hours of travel to the UK and a post-arrival PCR test by day two. Travellers must self-isolate until the results of this latter test are received, and can be stuck in quarantine for days if results are delayed.

The quarantine rules were beefed-up at the end of November in a bid to stem the importation of Omicron.

They added hundreds of pounds in testing bills to the cost of foreign breaks for families.

They also increased fears about being stranded abroad if pre-return test results are positive.  As a result travel firms reported mass cancellations.

Prior to the November changes, travellers were required to take just one rapid test post-arrival by day two. 

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents major carriers such as British Airways, Jet2 and easyJet, said yesterday it would also boost domestic tourism businesses because laxer rules will attract more foreign visitors.

He said: ‘This isn’t just about outbound holidays.

‘We’re losing billions in revenue from people who ordinarily would want to travel to the UK to spend money, including in our shops and restaurants.

‘This is a competition at the end of the day – we need to attract people to the UK, not put up a big ‘closed for business’ sign.

‘We can’t have international travel – and the hundreds of thousands of jobs and livelihoods that depend on it – being treated differently to hospitality and other domestic sectors.

The scrapping of overseas tests and day 2 PCR tests has already proved to be a boost for the travel industry with many families making bookings to go abroad (pictured: Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, on May 1, 2021)

The scrapping of overseas tests and day 2 PCR tests has already proved to be a boost for the travel industry with many families making bookings to go abroad (pictured: Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain, on May 1, 2021)

‘If Omicron doesn’t warrant further restrictions at home, then the case for continuing with the emergency testing requirements for aviation is undermined, especially now it is the dominant variant in the UK.’

Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), told BBC Breakfast that lateral flows were very accurate when it came to recording a positive result. 

‘Of course, with a PCR test what happens is a number of those can get sent away for sequencing and then you get more information regarding the virus itself. 

‘So, that sort of information may potentially be lost, but only a subset of those PCR tests are sent away for sequencing anyway, so, hopefully, we won’t be losing the levels of information that we already have in this country that enables us to identify variants and so forth.’ 

He said it was ‘very, very important’ that if any changes were brought in regarding dropping some PCRs that people still recorded their results from lateral flows. 

Regarding the change to travel testing requirements, he said when there were very high numbers of cases in the UK, testing upon entry to the UK ‘becomes less important’ as cases are already circulating. ‘

So, again, that’s probably why the change is coming in to support the travel industry and reduce a lot of the testing requirements.’ 

Mr Hawkins added that the restrictions had a significant effect on the number of travellers using its services.

‘We have seen passenger numbers fall back by about a third between October and November,’ he said. 

‘Passengers responded to the lifting of travel restrictions very positively and we saw a good level of recovery coming through but the new measures at the end of November and December knocked that back by about a third. 

‘We were at about 60 per cent of travel levels compared to 2019 and we fell back to just above 40 per cent. 

‘We are seeing higher absences along with most other businesses and transport providers and it’s putting them under a certain amount of pressure. 

‘But January is generally a quieter month for us anyway, and the testing requirements have knocked back by our recovery by a third.

‘So we do have some headroom to absorb those kinds of pressures at the moment, but we’re keeping a very close eye on absence levels and trends over the coming weeks.’

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Optimistic: Dame Irene Hays says 2022 will be a good year for travel

Optimistic: Dame Irene Hays says 2022 will be a good year for travel

Dame Irene Hays, the owner of Britain’s biggest independent travel agent, believes 2022 could finally be the year Britain gets a proper holiday

As soon as Boris Johnson scrapped stringent Covid tests for holidaymakers heading overseas, the phones started ringing off the hook at Hays Travel. 

With staff at her 455 shops now rolling their sleeves up to handle the surge of bookings to holiday hotspots from Spain to the Maldives and Caribbean cruises, she says: ‘When the announcement was made, it was such a sense of relief that this barrier and constraint has been removed. The feeling at Hays Travel was one of jubilation.’ 

Bookings are up 53 per cent since the Prime Minister confirmed on Wednesday that predeparture tests and quarantine on arrival would be scrapped for healthy vaccinated passengers from 4am last Friday. 

Lateral flow tests will replace PCR tests on arrival from today. 

As a sign of the huge pent-up demand and lockdown savings, Dame Irene says her sun-starved customers are spending £478 more than before the pandemic. 

An average family has splashed out £2,698 on a holiday over the past few days compared with £2,220 in 2019. 

Hays adds: ‘The testing, particularly the PCR test two days before returning to the UK, has been a barrier for people because of the worry that if they tested positive they would need to go into quarantine and the costs and disruption associated with that if they needed to come back and work.’ 

Almost half the bookings taken this month are for summer holidays – led by trips to Spain, Greece and the US – followed by soaring demand for long-haul winter sun destinations such as Sri Lanka and Barbados and a 34 per cent increase in bookings for cruises. 

Barring further restrictions, Hays believes this could be the turning point for the travel industry, after a rollercoaster two years when travel companies have endured endless false dawns due to changing rules. 

She says: ‘The travel industry has responded very well to Covid and put in place safety measures to ensure people feel safe when they go abroad.

‘Providing people are able to look after their health and comply with the arrangements in resorts and returning to the UK, then the sky’s the limit. The latent demand is enormous, so as long as there are no more constraints, it could be a fantastic year for travel.’ 

Dame Irene, a former city council leader, is one of the travel industry’s most respected figures and a ‘godmother’ to P&O’s biggest cruise ship, Iona, which she christened last May alongside former Take That singer Gary Barlow. 

Yet the 67-year-old’s journey through the pandemic’s choppy waters has been tougher than most. 

Having coped with the strain of saving the family business after revenues plummeted in February 2020, when some of Hays Travel’s customers were trapped on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan due to a Covid outbreak, her husband of 23 years, John Hays, died when he collapsed in the office in November the same year. 

The pair, both from mining towns in the North East of England, had built up the business John founded in the back of his mother’s babywear shop in County Durham in 1980, and were hailed as the ‘heroes of the high street’ when they bought 555 travel agents from bust chain Thomas Cook in October 2019, saving more than 2,000 jobs. 

Less than a year after the rescue deal, the couple were forced to announce that Covid travel bans meant 878 jobs at Hays Travel were at risk – which they called ‘the worst day we have ever had in our 40-year history’. 

They eventually cut redundancies to 494, by redeploying 384 staff to virtual call-centres and homeworking roles. 

‘It’s been a rollercoaster,’ says Dame Irene, who is now running the Sunderland-based business as chairwoman alongside chief operating officer Jonathon Woodall-Johnston. 

But in a sign of her inner steel as she fights to rebuild sales, she insists the crisis has presented ‘massive opportunities’ for the company. ‘This pandemic has been awful,’ she adds. ‘But it has given us time to innovate and diversify.’ 

Hays Travel is developing more unique holidays for customers keen for a taste of post-lockdown adventure: motorbiking on Route 66 in California on Harley Davidsons, for example. 

And from this month, it has launched direct flights to the Caribbean from six regional airports, including Bristol, Newcastle and Edinburgh, saving holidaymakers a trek to Heathrow or Manchester and a stop-off in the US. The direct flights are already sold out for 2022. 

Dame Irene says the business is also coming through the pandemic ‘strongly’ – thanks to the flexibility of its 4,300 staff as they adapted to working from home and its ‘peace of mind’ guarantee offering customers a full refund if they cancel or change the date of their trips six weeks before departure. 

Dame Irene says 53 per cent of its sales now come from customers booking holidays with the firm for the first time, compared to 19 per cent before the pandemic. 

‘This is a tremendous outcome,’ she says. 

‘People are coming to us because they want to know they will be looked after before they travel, if they are stuck in a resort, and when they come home.

‘Obviously there is a place for online bookings, but for anything with a high value or a bit of complexity, we are finding people want someone to help them find their holiday and to know who to go back to if there is a problem or worry.’ 

Hays Travel has 455 high street shops after axeing 89 former Thomas Cook travel agents in 2021, which were either in a bad state of repair or had high rents. That was part of a review that started before the pandemic. ‘We are very happy with our retail estate, and still believe it is part of a wider service we can provide for the customer,’ she says. 

The group’s latest financial results show a £34million loss for the 18 months to the end of April 2021. Sales fell to £747million, down from £1.1billion in 2019. 

Hays says the business remained loss-making until July last year but returned to profit from August. 

The losses are small compared to the billion-pound sums lost by other travel firms, she adds. 

‘One of the reasons why Hays Travel lost ‘only’ £34million was because we invested heavily in promoting and supporting all our cruise operators to give ‘seacations’ around the UK. That’s given people a taste of cruising and many have come back and booked an international cruise.’ 

Before the pandemic, Hays enjoyed ‘sensational’ holidays, she says. Now overseas travel is roaring back, she is planning a cruise of her own on the Amazon in South America. 

She had planned to go with John, who said presciently before he died: ‘Eventually there will be a vaccine – and the first thing people will want is a holiday.’ 

Looking emotional for the first time in our conversation, Hays says: ‘It was always something that John and I were going to do – so I’m going to do it on my own in April. I’ll raise a glass of wine to him.’

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