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From Tuesday, all incoming travellers aged 12 and over will have to take a test up to a maximum of 48 hours before they fly. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We knew this winter would be challenging but the arrival of a new variant means we must further strengthen our defences.
“In light of the most recent data we are taking further action to slow the incursion of the Omicron variant.”
Another 26 Omicron cases were reported in the UK yesterday, taking the total to 160.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had last week played down the chance of pre-departure tests being imposed, saying: “Do you want to kill off the travel sector again, without knowing that you need to?”
But he tweeted yesterday: “As the scientists work to understand [the] new Omicron variant, we need to apply additional caution until the picture is clearer.
“We appreciate this will be difficult for the travel sector as we prioritise public health and protect the progress of our world-leading vax & booster programme.”
Airlines will have to check pre-departure tests plus a Passenger Locator Form. Fliers will not be allowed to board without providing evidence of a negative test result ‑ lateral flow tests will be accepted.
It had been feared that a more costly PCR test would be needed, which would have added hundreds of pounds to the cost of a family travelling home.
In a further crackdown, Nigeria is to be added to the travel “red list” tomorrow.
Tory MP Henry Smith, who heads the all-party group for the future of aviation, said the introduction of mandatory tests was “a major blow that will hit our economy, jobs and place these vital industries into peril just as they were looking to recover”.
The move follows Omicron’s spread around the world. Early evidence suggests the time between carriers being infected and then becoming infectious is shorter than with the Delta strain of the virus.
But the Government’s change in requirements was attacked by the chief executive of travel trade body Airlines UK. Tim Alderslade said: “It is premature to hit millions of passengers and [the] industry before we see the full data.
“We don’t have the clinical evidence. We know from experience that blanket restrictions do not stop the importation of variants. [Omicron is] already here.
“They’ve now changed their travel advice twice within a week and it’s just impossible for anyone to plan. These measures must be removed as quickly as possible in line with the speed of the booster programme.”
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, claimed the tests were “a devastating blow for aviation and tourism.
Pre-departure tests act as a major deterrent to travel and most of the limited remaining demand following the reintroduction of self-isolation will now fall away, just as airports were hoping for a small uplift over the Christmas holiday.
“Travel and aviation are the only sectors hit with any operating restrictions in response to the Omicron variant. The UK and devolved governments should have done the right thing and, alongside the restrictions, announced support for our businesses and our staff to get through another period of shutdown.”
Britain was expected to pass a milestone today as the total number of booster jabs hit 20 million and Mr Javid stressed that vaccination remained the “first line of defence”.
He urged people to be jabbed for the festivities, saying it was crucial to have a booster “before spending time with loved ones”, as vaccines minister Maggie Throup said the extra shot was “the most important thing you can. do ahead of Christmas to protect yourself and your family”.
However, there was also growing concern that GPs have been told they may postpone until March 31 routine health checks on over-75s and new patients, to quicken the booster rollout.
Dr Farah Jameel, chairwoman of the BMA’s England GP committee, said any cut to red tape was welcome: “What it will do is free up staff who are busy filling some of these tick-box exercises, so some of our staff can be redeployed.”
But Prof Carl Heneghan, director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, questioned deferring the checks for the elderly: “Putting off preventive care is storing up substantial health problems for the future. Particularly, when care is stopped for the most vulnerable ‑ those most likely to benefit.
“The NHS is already in a dire position, with record waits, and this latest decision will only add to the burden.
“There will come a time when the preventive care debt will have to be repaid. My fear is for some it will come too late to intervene.”
Former pensions minister Ros Altmann said: “I’m deeply, deeply concerned that elderly people seem to be treated as an afterthought by the health service. Whenever services are under pressure it seems like the over-75s are expected to take the strain.”
Ex-defence minister Tobias Ellwood pressed for a change of tack: “Rather than burden existing health infrastructure, we should advance and grow the standalone jab centres. You don’t go to a general garage to get a tyre fixed but to a bespoke outfit.”
Caroline Abrahams of Age UK said it was in the best interests of older people to free up GPs’ time so they can have the jab as soon as possible but warned the booster programme was “way behind”.
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Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, used his regular Sunday Express Words of Wisdom slot to stress the importance of maintaining the support of the public in stopping the spread of Covid-19.
Quoting the observation of 19th-century novelist RS Surtees that “more people are flattered into virtue than bullied out of vice,” Mr Rees-Mogg said: “It has been essential that Covid regulations have gone with the grain of public opinion so have been accepted rather than needing aggressive enforcement. This remains true of the current arrangements.”
A further 42,848 Covid cases and 127 deaths were reported yesterday.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon had a booster jab yesterday, at a sports centre in Easterhouse, Glasgow. Scotland’s First Minister went on to urge the public: “Increasingly our message is to people to get boosted as soon as possible.”
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