Airlines UK and MAG call for return to restriction-free travel, as study shows testing is not effective against new variants

January 21st, 2022

Testing rules should become a thing of the past for fully-vaccinated travellers, according to findings of a study today published by Manchester Airports Group (MAG) and Airlines UK.

The research – conducted by specialist consultants Oxera and Edge Health – provides the evidence to support the removal of remaining testing requirements when Government reviews international travel restrictions next week.

Findings from the new study, which MAG and Airlines UK have submitted to Ministers ahead of their review, shows that governments are not able to implement travel restrictions quickly enough for them to be effective in limiting the spread of new, more infectious variants.

As a result, imposing travel restrictions in response to the discovery of a new variant will not help control the spread of a new variant or protect public health.

Pre-departure and post-arrival PCR tests were scrapped on 5th January after Government accepted that they served no purpose once the Omicron variant had become dominant in the UK. That led to calls from across the industry to scrap the remaining requirement for post-arrival Lateral Flow Tests, a call MAG and Airlines UK is reinforcing today.

As Omicron showed, it takes several weeks before governments become aware of new variants, and even longer to assess if they are variants of concern.  By the time a new variant has been discovered and evaluated, it is too late for restrictions to make any difference.

Retaining testing measures on a permanent, but precautionary basis would have huge long-term consequences for passengers and the travel sector. The study shows that even if current testing measures were kept in place indefinitely, they would only delay the spread of a new variant in the UK by between three and five days.

The permanent use of testing as a ‘first line of defence’ delivers benefits far too small to offset the economic and social damage caused by such restrictions, the study concludes. Even such ongoing measures would only buy a handful of days in delaying the peak but would cost the UK economy between £8bn and £11bn per year.

MAG CEO Charlie Cornish said:

“It is critical that travel policies are based on the best available analysis and the latest findings from Oxera and Edge Health show conclusively that testing for international travel will not deliver significant benefits in managing the spread of new variants.

“As we learn to live with COVID-19, it is important that people are allowed to travel free of the additional cost and uncertainty which testing creates. This study provides Ministers with the clear evidence that this is achievable.

“The UK Government has taken the step the remove domestic restrictions, and it should now apply this approach to international travel. We must allow the country’s worst hit sector to resume its road to recovery, and for the UK economy to benefit from the billions of pounds of economic value aviation generates.”

Airlines UK CEO Tim Alderslade said:

“Testing restrictions for the fully vaccinated make no sense at all given the delay in Governments being able to detect and act on the arrival of a new variant, as we saw with Omicron. This is something the World Health Organisation themselves have admitted. Not only do they fail to suppress the international spread of variants, they place a disproportionate burden on the travel sector and those that rely on the connectivity aviation provides.

“We need to be smarter in how we deal with future variants rather than resorting to blanket but wholly ineffective measures. Otherwise we will never be able to truly say we are ‘living with Covid’”  

Airlines UK and MAG, which owns Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands airports, are calling on Ministers to not only remove all remaining restrictions on international travel, but to reconsider their role in reacting to future variants of coronavirus, considering the marginal positive impact they deliver.

This latest research follows a previous Oxera study commissioned by MAG and Airlines UK, published on 5th January, which showed that removing all testing requirement this month would have no impact on the spread of Omicron in the UK. The study also concluded that additional testing measures introduced in November and December last year in response to Omicron had little to no impact on case rates in the UK.

Businesses across the sector felt the very real effect that the sudden re-introduction of testing could have, with the recovery of passenger numbers at MAG’s airports falling by more than 30% after Omicron measures were introduced.