Passengers arriving into England from abroad will be compelled to take tests for Covid-19 before they travel in an effort to limit the spread of new strains of coronavirus.
Travellers will from next week be asked to show proof of a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before they board planes, trains or boats destined for England, or face being denied travel.
“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,” Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said.
The measures will only apply to England, but the Westminster government is working with the devolved administrations to roll out similar measures.
The tightened immigration measures will apply to both UK nationals and visitors from overseas, with £500 fines for anyone found failing to comply.
The Financial Times reported on Monday evening that ministers were planning to bring in mandatory pre-flight testing, and there was a debate within government this week over whether the rules should apply to everyone, including UK nationals. That position was pushed by the Home Office and ultimately prevailed.
Ministers for months rebuffed travel industry efforts to introduce passenger testing as an alternative to quarantines, but the government said it had now acted because of new strains of the virus circulating in countries such as South Africa and Denmark.
Arrivals will still have to abide by the UK’s 10-day quarantine period, although passengers coming in from a small list of countries in the UK’s ‘travel corridor’ will be able to take another test five days after their arrival to be released early from self-isolation.
“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,” Mr Shapps said.
There will be some exceptions, including hauliers, crew and children under 11 and the new rules will not apply to the Common Travel Area with Ireland or to as yet unnamed countries deemed to not have a capacity to provide the tests.
The government has yet to set out standards that tests will need to meet and what proof passengers will need to present.
John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive, said he supported the testing strategy.
“The government must now prioritise the creation of a common international standard for testing that would introduce a global process to protect confidence in future travel,” he said.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said: “This is a necessary step, as it’s vital to do everything possible to control the spread of the virus and any further strains.
“However, Labour has been calling for a comprehensive strategy on testing for international travel since April. Instead the government has been lurching from one crisis to another.”
International travel has ground to a near standstill after the UK government introduced a third national lockdown to try to combat a rising tide of infections following the discovery of a new, more contagious strain of the virus.
One aviation executive said the industry was concerned that confidence in travel was so low that people would be put off buying tickets for the spring and summer holiday season, a critical period for cash-starved airlines, hotels and tour operators.
“This should be a short-term, emergency measure only and once the rollout of the vaccine accelerates, the focus must be on returning travel to normal as quickly as possible in order to support the UK’s economic recovery,” said Tim Alderslade, chief executive of industry body Airlines UK.
In a separate development on Thursday evening, the French government said hauliers travelling into France would continue to need a negative Covid test before they travel.
The requirement caused chaos when it was introduced without warning last month, leading to a backlog of about 10,000 trucks in Kent, which has since cleared.