The first arrivals to England who can take advantage of the new “test-to-release” scheme to cut quarantine times have already touched down.
But there is still no clarity over how travellers can organise the necessary tests – and the government’s own online explanation of the scheme provides conflicting advice on how soon the procedure can be carried out.
The so-called “quarantine short-circuit” is the long-awaited alternative to 14 days of self-isolation. It allows arriving travellers to pay to take a private Covid test five days after leaving a country on England’s quarantine list.
The scheme begins on 15 December. Anyone who arrives before then can avail of the option by booking a test for that date, or five days after leaving a quarantine country – whichever is the latest.
The government has concluded: “The protective effect of testing to release international arrivals after five days of self-isolation is only marginally less effective than 14 days of self-isolation, assuming full compliance under both scenarios.
“Self-isolation is a significant restriction on personal liberty and this scheme will allow for that restriction to be relaxed in a safe manner.”
Yet the official list of approved test centres has not yet been released.
The government says: “A list of private test providers will be published on gov.uk soon.” It cautions: “You may be fined if you use a negative NHS test result to end your self-isolation period early.
“You can only end your self-isolation if you have a negative test that you paid for under the test-to-release scheme.”
There is confusion over when exactly the test can be taken.
The Independent has confirmed that it may be taken as early as 0.01am on the fifth day after the date of leaving a quarantine country, if a provider is open so early.
So a passenger who leaves Germany on Monday 14 December and arrives in England on the same day would be able to take a test on Saturday 19 December. The government’s online advice initially confirms this timetable – but then immediately contradicts it, saying: “You can take a test after self-isolating for five full days.”
The use of “after” indicates the earliest the test can be taken is on the sixth day, which would push the day of the test to Sunday 20 December.
The Independent has asked the government to address the contradiction.
The government says its new policy “aims to encourage increased economic activity in the travel sector [and] enable those who have to travel for essential reasons an option to reduce the self-isolation period, which is a significant burden, including a more rapid return to work”.
But senior travel industry figures believe the short-circuit will do little to encourage discretionary trips for leisure or business because the Foreign Office (FCDO) continues to warn that the vast majority of countries are “unacceptably high risk” because of their Covid-19 infection levels. This has the effect of rendering standard travel insurance policies void.
British travellers heading to countries with lower infection rates than the UK – such as France, Canada and almost anywhere in Africa – are unable to use standard travel insurance.
Most policies contain a clause saying cover is void if a Foreign Office warning is in place.
For example, South Africa, normally an extremely popular winter destination, is on the no-go list: “The FCDO advises against all but essential travel to the whole of South Africa based on the current assessment of Covid-19 risks.”
According to European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control figures, the UK’s rate of new cases is around five times higher than South Africa.
Paul Goldstein, co-owner of Kicheche Safari Lodges in Kenya, has seen many clients cancel. “Kenya has a very low virus rating and desperately needs the tourists and businesses that for years have supported its economy,” he said.
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