Government faces difficult choices ahead of Christmas period as travel restrictions tighten

By Joe Cooper

Ahead of the busy Christmas period, travel plans have been thrown into jeopardy with the reintroduction of pre-departure COVID tests before entering the UK.  

Amid the growing number of cases of the Omicron variant, the new requirements came into effect this morning. Under the new rules, all travellers to the UK aged 12 and over will be required to show proof of a negative test – either PCR or lateral flow – even if they are fully vaccinated. On arrival, travellers will have another two days to take a PCR test, which must be booked prior to travel. Travellers will be required to self-isolate while waiting for the result of their PCR test to come back.  

This latest development comes as a blow to the travel industry, which has endured another difficult year thanks to lockdown restrictions and reduced overseas travel. Responding to the latest setback, travel association ABTA said that “the re-introduction of pre-departure tests is a huge blow to travellers and an already devastated travel industry.” Given the size of the UK’s travel industry, the Government will face pressure to give serious consideration to how the sector can continue to support jobs now that the furlough scheme is no longer in place.  

The public, too, are likely to be feeling the pinch as a result of the new testing requirements. Consumer group Which? has already warned that “constantly changing rules at the last minute risks leaving passengers footing the bill”, while the BBC’s Have Your Say documents the real-life impact that additional costly tests will have for families.  

Though the cost of testing for travel has gradually reduced throughout the year, the Government and consumer regulator the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will be keen to avoid a repeat of the summer, when action had to be taken to clamp down on rogue providers and suppliers turning an extortionate profit at the cost of the public.  

Politically, the latest development in the pandemic comes at a difficult time for ministers. While many face the prospect of disrupted holiday plans, the Government continues to come under pressure over allegations that Downing Street hosted a Christmas party after London had gone into Tier 3 restrictions last December. One man who won’t be on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list is his former Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings, who took to Twitter yesterday to accuse him of lying about the party, while also adding that there were journalists present at gatherings in the No.10 flat.  

While this latest political saga continues, the reality is that the Government again finds itself facing difficult decisions over how to manage the pandemic.  

Leading figures such as Health Secretary Sajid Javid have long argued that the country would need to learn to “live with the virus”, and backbench Conservative MPs continue to be opposed to any additional lockdown restrictions. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is known to be against anything that would see a return to significant demands for financial support for businesses and workers, which would inevitably follow tighter restrictions. 

But while another national lockdown seems unlikely at this point given the easing of restrictions for much of this year and the roll out of the vaccine, should measures need to be taken beyond wearing masks and working from home, there could be significant political and fiscal implications for the Government and the Prime Minister if they find themselves forced into a U-turn.