A new pre-departure testing requirement for arrivals into England and Scotland, which is likely to be adopted in Wales and Northern Ireland too, "must be a short-term emergency measure only", the trade body representing UK registered airlines has said.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps outlined the new measures on Friday (8 January), which will come into force next week.
It will require those travelling to the UK from any destination to provide evidence of a pre-travel negative Covid test taken up to 72 hours prior to departure.
The new rules will apply to those arriving from travel corridor destinations; those arriving from non-travel corridor destinations will still have to self-isolate for 10 days upon their arrival, even if their Covid test status is negative.
Shapps said the new rules would guard against the import of new strains of Covid-19, such as those detected in Denmark and more recently in South Africa.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said: "We recognise the UK government’s need to act now and support the introduction of pre-departure testing in order to keep the country safe and borders open.
"However, this should be a short-term, emergency measure only and once the rollout of the vaccine accelerates, the focus must be on returning travel to normal as quickly as possible in order to support the UK’s economic recovery.
"This includes removing the need to quarantine or test as the UK population is vaccinated and the virus is brought under control at home and abroad.
"Ultimately, cheaper and quicker testing is required to ensure travel can be accessible while testing is required but then needs to be unwound once vaccinations and the overall threat of Covid recedes.”
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association (AOA), said the move was understandable from a public health perspective, adding it was the UK’s quarantine rules – not pre-travel testing – that would continue to stifle the recovery of the aviation sector.
"Travel bans introduced before Christmas and the lockdown measures introduced this week mean UK aviation is, once again, effectively closed," said Dee. "This has made the devastating situation for UK airports and communities relying on aviation worse.
"Aviation will only fully recover when the need for quarantine is eliminated on a four-nation basis across the UK. Testing, including pre-departure tests, has a crucial role to play in that.
"We urge the government to work with industry and public health authorities to take further steps on pre-departure and rapid testing as soon as possible to safely remove quarantine altogether.
"Until that happens, industry cannot recover fully so government must provide financial support to protect connectivity and its global Britain and levelling-up agendas."
Dale Keller, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK (Bar UK), added that while Bar recognised the public would welcome such a "critical measure", the government had ignored airlines’ wide support for pre-departure testing dating back "many months".
"It is vital the lockdown period is utilised to develop a well-coordinated path towards easing travel restrictions at the earliest opportunity once the threat recedes," said Keller.
He continued: "In particular, the requirement to self-isolate for 10 days after arrival in the UK, and to review the ’Test to Release’ option after five days.
"As the vaccination programme gathers pace and the most vulnerable are protected, it is vital international travel is normalised through removing layered or conflicting measures that do not achieve the necessary balance to protect public health, restore confidence and rebuild the aviation and travel sector.”
Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said the airport had long been an advocate for pre-departure testing. "Today’s government announcement brings us in line with many other countries and closer to having a consistent, internationally coordinated pre-departure testing regime.
"When current lockdown restrictions are eased, and infection rates decrease, pre-departure testing could ultimately encourage frequent international travel to restart by eliminating the need for arriving passengers to quarantine.
"It remains important, however, that any tests are affordable for passengers and that these arrangements are temporary and are withdrawn at the earliest opportunity when public health conditions permit."
Wingate added Gatwick would continue to press for a "comprehensive support package" for the UK’s aviation sector.
"It is vital critical national infrastructure such as airports are able to thrive and provide the international connectivity required to ensure Britain remains open for trade and business as we enter the post-Brexit era," said Wingate.