Travellers arriving in England from 15 December will have an alternative to two weeks in self-isolation: taking a Covid-19 test after five days, and ending quarantine if it proves negative.
The announcement from the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has been welcomed across the travel industry.
To take advantage of what is called the “test to release for international travel” strategy, passengers arriving by air, sea or rail are asked to book a test from a government-approved list of private providers before they depart for the UK.
Travellers will also be expected to complete a passenger locator form before arrival, and must travel straight to their place of self-isolation.
The procedure involves a swift and relatively cheap Lamp test, either at home or an outside testing site. In the latter case, The Independent estimates the test is likely to cost between £60 and £120, and provide a result in as little as one hour.
Mr Shapps said: “We have a plan in place to ensure that our route out of this pandemic is careful and balanced, allowing us to focus on what we can now do to bolster international travel while keeping the public safe.
“Our new testing strategy will allow us to travel more freely, see loved ones and drive international business. By giving people the choice to test on day five, we are also supporting the travel industry as it continues to rebuild out of the pandemic.”
The government says a test after five days of self-isolation provides “materially better results than just having a test on arrival”.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “This test on day five of the 14-day self-isolation period will identify positive coronavirus cases and allow those who test negative to return to work and see their loved ones.
“This will be done at the cost of the traveller to protect the capacity of NHS Test and Trace and ensure that any UK resident who has symptoms is able to get a test.”
It is 24 weeks since mandatory self-isolation was imposed for arrivals to the UK from the vast majority of countries. Quarantine was eased in the summer for arrivals from some destinations.
But all the key destinations for British holidaymakers — including France, Spain and Italy — have been removed from the so-called “travel corridors” list.
At present the plan applies only to England, but the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to follow suit.
The government has come under sustained pressure from the aviation industry to allow testing before departure or on arrival. Airlines and airports gave a guarded welcome to the transport secretary’s heavily trailed announcement.
Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive, Shai Weiss, said: “The introduction of air passenger testing on day five is a vital first step to reopening the skies in the run-up to Christmas. However, a five-day quarantine is likely to prove a significant deterrent for travellers, especially those on business.”
Charlie Cornish, chief executive of Manchester Airports Group, said: “To be world-leading, the government must now work quickly with the aviation industry to refine the regime and introduce faster and cheaper tests.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the industry body Airlines UK, said: “A test at day five does not get rid of quarantine and that’s why we look forward to working with government to move towards a pre-departure or domestic testing regime that can remove safely the need for self-isolation altogether, as quickly as possible.
“This is the only way we’re going to comprehensively reopen the market.”
The government is also providing a package of financial support for English airports and ground handlers serving them.
Since lockdown began in England on 5 November, most airports have seen the number of daily departures and arrivals drop dramatically, often to zero.