Paul Mercer is the director of an international consultancy firm, and is a Charnwood Borough councillor.
The move to insist that returning travellers take a negative Covid-19 test makes sense, because it reduces the chance of new infections being brought into the UK, and means that passengers are less likely to infect each other.
Tests in Canada revealed that 1.5 per cent of non-symptomatic travellers were positive. Although this number seems low, it suggests that every international flight is importing potentially three or four infected people. Other research has suggested a minimal chance of catching Covid-19 from another passenger on a plane. But even if only 95 per cent of passengers succeed in getting the test, that would reduce the number coming into the UK with it to less than one in 1,300.
Governments rightly recognise that some foreign travel is necessary for international business to continue, but placing impenetrable barriers in their way ultimately means that contracts don’t get signed and the economy suffers.
On January 11, Robert Courts announced that “passengers arriving by ship, plane or train will have to take a test up to three days before departure and provide evidence of a negative result before they travel”. This was defined in a subsequent statutory instrument published on January 16 – the day before the changes were implemented.
The rules largely rely upon threatening to fine airlines who fail to check rather than doing so when one arrives in the UK, although immigration officers can still impose fixed penalty fines, starting at £500 for failure to produce a certificate.
The Government recognises that in some cases obtaining a test within three days may be difficult, but the problem is that airlines, faced with the threat of a £2,000 fine, are unlikely to allow any UK-bound passengers to board without a certificate.
A significant problem is that although many countries are offering ‘48 hour checks’ the reality is that these take longer, because the certificates can only be picked up later on the third day.
Typically, they recommend that you turn up for the check at 8.00am and collect the result two days later at 3.00pm – a 54-hour turnaround. If you assume one hour to get to the airport, it follows that you can only depart between 7.00pm and 9.00am to meet the 72-hour rule. The rules are quite specific that it is the time from when the sample was taken rather than when the certificate was produced that counts.
A third difficulty is that the negative test result must include one’s date of birth and when the sample was taken. I have had two Covid PCR tests outside the UK in the past two months, and neither of them met these requirements, although both included my passport number – which, curiously, has been omitted from these requirements. If airlines follow these rules strictly, then many people will be unable to return to the UK. The new policies stipulate that certificates must be in English, Spanish or French, and this seems likely to exclude even more people.
A final problem is that there is no way for travellers to get clarity about these regulations. Courts stated that British nationals who were having problems meeting this requirement “should contact the nearest consulate, embassy or high commission”.
When I followed his advice last week, I was informed by ‘David F’ at the ‘Consular Contact Centre’ that “the Home Office owns information regarding entry to the UK, including testing requirements, quarantine and exemptions”, and that he could therefore not help. Instead I should “contact the Home Office”.
He added that “for information about Covid-19 testing requirements abroad”, the Foreign Office recommended “an Internet search of the words ‘Covid testing near me’.” This produced helpful links to Chicago, Mumbai, Cheltenham and San Francisco.
The new regulations have also quietly taken away some of the exemptions from quarantining introduced for business travellers, those involved in advertising productions, the arts, television production, the National Lottery and journalists.
If these rules are to be effective with impending legitimate travel, more than reliance upon airlines and the occasional random check by an immigration officer is required. The current online Public Health Passenger Locator Form’ (PLF) works seamlessly, because it is linked to passports which are checked at eGates on returning to the UK. Passengers without the form are not allowed through.
It would make more sense to add a requirement to attach the Covid Test Certificate to the PLF and enter its details at the same time. This would offer several advantages. It would deter the temptation to submit a fraudulent certificate; it would make it considerably easier for airlines to carry out the necessary check; and the UK authorities would have a record that the appropriate certificate had been obtained.
Over the next few days, it will become apparent whether the Government, in reducing the risk of transmission, has stranded many British citizens abroad who have legitimately travelled for business purposes.