Airline and travel bosses have attacked the continuing UK travel restrictions and Covid-19 testing requirements, with research showing inbound tourism to the UK declined sharply in 2021 while other markets recovered.
Willie Walsh, the director general of the global airline body Iata, described coronavirus travel tests as a “state-sponsored rip-off” and “profiteering”, and questioned why travel remained singled out when most restrictions to other sectors of the economy had been dropped.
The government has pledged to drop PCR tests in favour of cheaper lateral flow tests (LFT) for incoming passengers, possibly in time for the half-term holiday, but ministers have given no firm date. Walsh said “alarm bells ring” when prices for LFTs started at £35 in the UK: “In Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands you can buy an antigen kit from the supermarket for less than €5.”
He said the UK “got lost” after vaccinating its population, contrasting it with the EU, which he said was “moving in the right direction and much faster”.
Walsh questioned why the UK still had mandatory testing for vaccinated arrivals, adding: “You have to ask why so much effort is put into controlling travellers when most restrictions have been dropped in the general population? In terms of day-to-day life, the UK is far more pragmatic in managing Covid-19 than many other states. But its approach to travel continues to focus on restrictions which cannot be justified based on risk.”
Speaking at an Aviation Club event in London, he said the UK rules had forced him to pay £58 for a day two PCR test for an eight-hour visit, and when checking the government website of approved providers, it said their prices “were a guide and the final price could be different”, adding: “Can you imagine if airlines put that on their website?”
His comments came as the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) said coronavirus travel restrictions were affecting UK inbound tourism harder than most countries around the world. The WTTC said spending by international visitors to the UK was forecast to decrease by nearly 50% this year compared with 2020, when other countries have experienced a rise in inbound travel in 2021.
Julia Simpson, the WTTC president, and Walsh’s former chief of staff when he was boss of the British Airways, owner IAG, said: “While the global travel and tourism sector is beginning to recover, the UK continues to suffer big losses due to continuing travel restrictions that are tougher than the rest of Europe.”
Speaking at an Abta travel conference in London, she criticised the UK government for sowing confusion with “things announced with no date for implementation of the changes”, such as the move to LFTs, adding: “They’ve got to absolutely get rid of the red list now, we do not need it, if people are double vaxed they should travel freely.”
Mark Tanzer, Abta’s chief executive, said that the travel association’s research showed customers’ “intention to travel this winter, and for the next 12 months, heading back to close to pre-Covid levels”.
While he said many bookings were deferred from 2019 and 2020, he added that it demonstrated “the underlying determination to travel again, which should give us, and financial backers, confidence”.
He said, however, that the industry still needed government to “ease the red tape” for entry to the UK, and urged the chancellor to extend support measures in the upcoming budget for travel firms, which for some “will mean the difference between survival and failure”.