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Covid: England travel testing delay 'to help out business'

Matthew Weaver and Gwyn Topham
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The government has suggested it is delaying the requirement for travellers to England to have a negative coronavirus test to soften the impact of the move on businesses.

Late on Wednesday night, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said the new rule would come into force on Monday at 4am instead of Friday as planned.

Asked to explain the delay for a move that was signalled last week, the safeguarding minister, Victoria Atkins, said it was for economic reasons.

Speaking to Sky News, she said: “There’s a very delicate balancing act here between controlling the virus but also ensuring that we are not putting too much of a burden on the economy.”

UK coronavirus cases

She added: “We have listened to the concerns that many people had about whether the message has quite got through to people who are making the flights over the weekend, and we have acted in relation to those concerns.”

Shapps also said the delay was aimed at giving international travellers more time to prepare.

Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP who chairs the home affairs select committee, said the latest delay on a measure to restrict the spread of the virus was “truly shocking”.

In a tweet, she claimed the real reason for the delay was a failure to publish the guidance in time.

Under the new requirement, travellers will need to present proof of a negative test result to their carrier on boarding, while UK Border Force will conduct spot checks on arrivals. New arrivals who flout the rules will face a minimum £500 fine, while the operator who transported them will also be fined. Passengers will still have to quarantine for 10 days regardless of their test results.

However, the guidance specifying the type of tests and documentation that would be required was not published on the UK government’s website until late on Wednesday, making it almost impossible for potential inbound travellers abroad to arrange tests in time for the original deadline.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, said rules requiring travellers arriving in the country to have a negative coronavirus test were in force in Scotland.

In an interview on BBC Breakfast, he said: “The position in Scotland is that those restrictions are in place and we want to see people following those restrictions to make sure that we minimise the risk.”

When asked if people had to have a test before they travelled to Scotland, he replied: “Yes,” and agreed that the restrictions applied now.

Atkins also appeared to confirm that the government was about to ban flights from Brazil over concerns about a new strain of the virus detected there.

Asked why travel from Brazil had not been banned already, she said: “It takes a little bit of time … what we need to ensure is that when we make these very very important decisions that have a huge impact on people’s personal lives, but also on businesses, and so on, we’ve got to just have a little bit of time to let that fit in and to settle in.”

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson suggested the government was preparing to ban travellers from Brazil, with an announcement expected on Thursday afternoon.

Answering questions from Cooper at the liaison committee, he said: “We are putting in extra measures to ensure that people coming from Brazil are checked: and indeed stopping people coming from Brazil.”

Atkins told Sky: “The prime minister was clear that measures will be taken. We have acted decisively in the past with both the Denmark and the South African variants. I wouldn’t want to speculate further at this stage.”

Flights between the UK and Brazil have been stopped since 25 December, at the instigation of the Brazilian government, due to the new variant of Covid-19 discovered in the UK.

The Lib Dems joined criticism of the government’s failure to act sooner, warning the UK’s “farcical travel rules” were putting lives at risk.

Sarah Olney, the Lib Dem spokesperson for transport, said: “Once again it seems the Conservatives have missed the opportunity to help stem the spread of Covid-19. They’ve delayed action on cutting travel between the UK and South America, risking the arrival of the new variant. And we are still not requiring testing prior to travel to the UK.”