Test requirements have been eased for fully vaccinated arrivals to the UK – reverting to the situation that prevailed for five weeks in late 2021.
The removal of the pre-departure test requirement reduces cost and complexity for international arrivals, and has increased confidence among prospective travellers.
For double-jabbed travellers the post-arrival test remains in place, but a cheap and fast lateral flow device can be used – with no requirement to self-isolate until a negative result is received.
Travellers who are currently self-isolating must continue in quarantine until they get a negative result.
Testing and self-isolation rules for unvaccinated travellers have not changed.
On top of this, many foreign countries are still imposing severe restrictions – often near-total bans – on British travellers.
None of these rules apply to arrivals from Ireland.
These are the key questions and answers around travel in the coming weeks.
What’s the background?
As concern grew in medical and government circles about the Omicron variant of coronavirus, testing rules for travellers arriving in the UK were stepped up in late November and early December 2021 to try to “buy time” and limit the spread.
The UK brought in Europe’s most onerous testing rules, which applied to all international arrivals to the UK, except from Ireland. Everyone aged 12 and over was required to take a pre-departure test before leaving for the UK and book a post-arrival PCR test with mandatory self-isolation until a negative result was obtained.
Many people were deterred from travelling because of the cost of tests and/or fears over testing positive.
During December, Manchester Airports Group – which includes Stansted and East Midlands airports – reported a one-third slump in travel.
What has changed?
The testing regime for travellers to the UK has returned to the relatively low-cost, low-hassle state that prevailed between 24 October and 30 November.
Fully vaccinated travellers need not present a pre-departure test certificate to the airline, ferry company or train operator.
They must present a passenger locator form. In order to complete this, the traveller must book a post-arrival (”day two”) test to be taken on the day of arrival or one of the two following days.
If a lateral flow test is positive, the traveller must then take a free NHS PCR test.
Travellers who have already booked “day two” PCR tests for future trips can continue to use them – there is no need to book a different test.
How much cheaper is it?
Removing the need for a pre-departure test saves anything from around £20 to as much as $250 (£185), in some cases, for travel from the US.
Post-arrival PCR tests currently cost around £50-£80. Lateral flow tests are available for £10 or less with some stringent click-and-collect rules, but £20-£30 is more common.
While the degree of hassle in organising the test remains the same, the end to the self-isolation rule is a huge improvement from the traveller’s point of view.
Can’t I use an NHS lateral flow test, as I do for work?
No. NHS tests cannot be used for international travel. The post-arrival test must be privately obtained and properly certified.
When should I book my test?
As late as possible: on the on the day you return or the evening before. There is no advantage booking any earlier, and you could end up wasting money if the rules change.
What does the travel industry say?
Generally the news has been welcomed, with Jet2 Holidays reporting sales up 150 per cent since the announcement was made. Jet2’s chief executive, Steve Heapy, said sales are “massively up” for all trips from immediate departure until October 2023.
But Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership, warned that sudden moves such as the overnight introduction of Omicron restrictions in November, could cause harm in future.
“Confidence is crucial now,” she said. “In order to recover from the decimating impact the pandemic has had on the travel industry and people we must start to see a consistent approach from government in terms of the future relaxation of rules given our highly vaccinated population.”
Is everyone else happy?
No. Scotland’s health secretary, Humza Yousaf, criticised Boris Johnson’s government for announcing eased travel testing rules before all four UK nations had agreed to changes.
Speaking on BBC Good Morning Scotland, Mr Yousaf said: “Although we’re engaged in conversations with the UK government, it’s a source of frustration that if the UK government unilaterally decides to move in a certain direction, we end up with potentially a double whammy if we don’t align.
“We don’t end up realising any public health benefit if we have to put measures in place because ultimately a number of people may well travel from English airports if that is seen to be easier or cheaper.”
Later, though, Scotland joined the other UK nations. The transport secretary, Michael Matheson said: “We still have significant concerns over Omicron, but we recognise that, now it is the most dominant strain in Scotland and across the UK, it is sensible to review the measures currently in place.
“We also fully understand the impact of the restrictions on staff and businesses in the travel and aviation sectors and these changes demonstrate our commitment not to keep measures in place any longer than necessary.
“However, people still need to be extremely careful when travelling .”
The Welsh health minister, Eluned Morgan, said she had “reluctantly agreed” to align with England’s changes.
But she warned: “We are concerned at the speed at which the UK government is re-opening international travel, given on-going concerns of importing new variants and adding additional pressure to our health services.”
Can I get a refund for tests I’ve booked but now don’t need?
That all depends on your provider’s terms. Eurofins, for example, says it is offering the option of a “no-quibble refund”.
But 0044CovidTest.com, one of the brands set up to cash in on the testing requirements, insists: “We operate a strict no refund and returns policy for Covid PCR testing kits.
“If the PCR test booking reference number has been issued by us and sent to you, we cannot provide a refund.”
If your tests are non-refundable, at least you can still use the post-arrival PCR after the rules change. There is no need to self-isolate while you wait for a result.
The Independent has always advocated booking tests as late as possible to avoid paying for unnecessary or inappropriate tests.
I have recovered from Covid-19 and worry about false positives. Am I exempt from taking a post-arrival test?
No, but the downgrade from PCR to lateral flow should reduce the risk of false positives.
What are the rules for unvaccinated travellers?
Nothing changes. Travellers must take a pre-departure test two days ahead. You must also book PCR tests for days two and eight and self-isolate for 10 days (reduced to five in England if you take a further “test to release” halfway through).
When will things change again?
That rather depends on further variants – and the government’s response to them.
In October, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “We are accelerating towards a future where travel continues to reopen safely and remains open for good.
“With more than eight in 10 people now fully vaccinated, we are able to take these steps to lower the cost of testing and help the sector to continue in its recovery.”
In December he told Christopher Hope of the Telegraph that pre-departure tests would not return because to do so could “kill off the travel sector again”.
But the rules then reverted to where they were in summer 2021, with the added twist of self-isolation.
What happens if I contract Covid-19 abroad?
You must immediately notify the local health authority and follow their instructions for isolation, which could be at your cost. Some travel insurance policies will cover the expenses involved.
Travel firms will generally be flexible about moving bookings for people who test positive ahead of their flight/ferry/train and allow postponements without additional fees.