IT can take more than usual to lift the spirits in the dark days of January but reports of an impending end to mandatory coronavirus tests for fully vaccinated people returning to or arriving in England from overseas did just that.

The UK Government has not confirmed the rumoured plans to scrap testing rules for such travellers, although it certainly does not seem to have given any signals to the contrary. And the devolved nations of the UK will have to make their own decisions.

However, there does seem to be plenty of room for hope for those who have been put off travelling overseas by the expense, hassle, and uncertainty created by onerous mandatory testing requirements.

For the international travel sector in the UK, which is a major employer and an important contributor to overall economic activity, it is obviously a case of the sooner, the better on the ending of test requirements for fully vaccinated people.

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And, in terms of policymaking, it seems only right that those who have done the responsible thing and bothered to get fully vaccinated can reap the benefits of the health protection this has afforded them and others with the removal of restrictions.

In other areas of life, in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK and in many other countries, policy has generally been developing in a way which has freed up fully vaccinated people from coronavirus-related restrictions to a greater extent. This is the way it should be, from a risk perspective, and it will hopefully also encourage vaccine take-up.

HeraldScotland: Picture: Gordon TerrisPicture: Gordon Terris

 

Of course, there must be exemptions for people who are too young to have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, in travel and other aspects of life.

Currently, fully vaccinated people returning to or arriving in any of the UK nations from overseas must book and pay for a “day two” lateral flow or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before they travel. They must then take this test within two days of their return to or arrival in the UK.

The barriers that these requirements throw up both for people in the UK looking to take a holiday abroad or travel overseas for other reasons, and for incoming tourism, are obvious and significant.

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During the autumn, it had looked as if travel restrictions for the fully vaccinated might at last be on the way out for all parts of the UK, and that this might even occur in a fairly short time period.

Then the Omicron variant came along and things went in the other direction, with restrictions reimposed, in what was a major and demoralising blow to people with rising hopes of being able to go abroad and also to the international travel sector.

This key sector, spanning holiday companies, hotel operators, travel agents, airlines, and airports and ground-handling operations, has seemed throughout much of the coronavirus pandemic to be first in line for restrictions and last out of them.

Moves earlier this month by the Johnson administration and the devolved nations, including Scotland, to remove again the requirement for “pre-departure” tests overseas for fully vaccinated people and under-18s returning to or arriving in the UK signalled light at the end of the tunnel this year for international travel.

These pre-departure tests had been removed previously, and then reimposed when Omicron took hold. It was good to see these being scrapped again relatively quickly for the fully vaccinated, after government assessment of the Omicron situation in this context.

As with other changes to travel rules, the reported but unconfirmed plan to scrap “day two” tests for vaccinated travellers appears to be geared around the English school holidays, in this case the February half-term break.

And this reported move to further ease international travel restrictions looks to be driven by the UK Government, which sets the rules for England.

That said, there has for months now broadly been a four-nations approach to international travel rules.

 

HeraldScotland: Picture: Jamie SimpsonPicture: Jamie Simpson

There has on occasion appeared to be reluctance among devolved nations to ease the restrictions in line with the UK Government decisions, or some understandable annoyance when it has been perceived the Johnson administration has jumped the gun with early announcements. However, the key point is that the rules have ultimately been changed in the same way. In the earlier stages of this grim pandemic, that was not the case, as devolved administrations endeavoured to assess what was happening and take appropriate policy action.

Of course, things are very different now from the earlier stages of the pandemic, not least because of the rapid rollout of vaccines.

Obviously, UK travellers are also bound by the rules of the countries they wish to visit but generally, aside from the temporary Omicron measures, there have been positive signs that things are moving in the right direction on this front.

While the reported plan by the UK Government to scrap the “day two” test relates to fully vaccinated people returning to or arriving in England, it is to be hoped that Scotland and the other devolved administrations follow suit, removing the requirement at the same time. This test remained for the fully vaccinated even when things were eased last autumn.

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HeraldScotland: Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA WirePicture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

The importance to Scotland’s economy and labour market of the connectivity offered to travellers at home and abroad by the nation’s airports must not be underestimated.

Hopefully, the Scottish Government is all too aware of just how crucial it is to maximise the route networks of the nation’s airports, and of the need to focus on this issue as we emerge from the grim pandemic.

The ultimate absence of international travel restrictions for fully vaccinated people and under-18s entering Scotland will be crucial to these efforts.

In the shorter term, the reported plans by the UK Government to scrap “day two” tests for fully vaccinated travellers offer time, if followed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, for the international travel sector in Scotland to harness pent-up demand for Easter and summer holidays. That would indeed be something to lift the spirits of a sector that has not had its troubles to seek for nearly two years now, as well as would-be travellers.