For travellers arriving in the UK, the passenger locator form and Covid testing rules are to be abandoned on Friday 18 March at 4am.
Twenty-one months after tough Covid travel restrictions were brought in by the UK, they are now deemed unnecessary.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, tweeted: “All remaining Covid travel measures, including the passenger locator form and tests for all arrivals, will be stood down for travel to the UK from 4am on 18 March.”
He called the move “a testament to the hard work everyone in this country has put in place to roll out the vaccine and protect each other”.
Mr Shapps later told BBC News: “You can travel just like in the good old days.”
Sadly, that is far from the truth – with restrictions still in place in many destinations.
These are the key questions and answers.
When did travel rules start for the UK?
A few temporary restrictions were placed on arrivals from countries such as China and Italy early in 2020, but they were scrapped in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Unlike other countries, the UK had no restrictions on international arrivals until 8 June 2020, when blanket quarantine lasting two weeks was imposed on all arrivals from abroad (except Ireland).
In addition the passenger locator form was brought in for arrivals to the UK, demanding a wide range of information about the traveller’s journey. Over the following months, it became increasingly complex and incoherent – for example, when quarantine exemption was extended to islands such as the Canaries and Madeira, the form became more complicated.
The online health form has been widely derided as far more complicated than those of other nations. Pieter Elbers, chief executive of the giant Dutch airline KLM, told an aviation conference: “My assistant almost asked for pay rise for sorting it out.”
What about testing rules?
Throughout 2020, British ministers dismissed testing as useless. But in 2021, after an unprecedented 19-week ban took effect, the government made testing mandatory for all arrivals. (In order to accommodate proof that the necessary tests had been booked, the passenger locator form increased in complexity still further.)
After the international travel ban was lifted, vaccination status became a condition for less onerous restrictions. Unvaccinated travellers must still take a pre-departure test and a post-arrival PCR, though those will be scrapped on Friday 18 March.
Is the UK really leading the world?
According to Grant Shapps, it is. He said: “The UK is leading the world in removing all remaining Covid-19 travel restrictions.”
In fact, a number of other countries have already dropped all their rules, including Ireland, Norway and Hungary.
The minister’s sudden move caused surprise in some quarters; it was only in December that the UK brought in Europe’s most onerous testing rules, which applied to all international arrivals to the UK, except from Ireland.
Everyone aged 12 and over was required to take a pre-departure test before leaving for the UK and book a post-arrival PCR test with mandatory self-isolation until a negative result was obtained.
The rules remained in place for many weeks, and airlines reported a slump in business with people were deterred from travelling because of the cost of tests and/or fears over testing positive.
In addition, the window for completing the passenger locator form was extended from 48 to 72 hours earlier this month, which now looks like a pointless exercise.
Can I really “travel just like in the good old days”?
No. Many destinations have travel restrictions in place – requiring some combination of:
- online arrival form
- proof of vaccination, possibly including booster
- pre-departure test
- post-arrival test
- mandatory Covid insurance
- general ban on leisure travel
For example, New Zealand says fully vaccinated tourists and family visitors will have to wait until July 2022.
There is no sign of Hong Kong and the rest of China opening up in the near future.
But airports and airlines are getting easier?
Yes. Heathrow will abandon the requirement to wear a mask from Wednesday this week – though it “strongly encourages those at the airport to continue wearing a face covering – particularly when coming into close contact with others”.
British Airways says: “From Wednesday March 16, customers will only be required to wear a face covering on board our flights if the destination they’re travelling to requires it.
“For destinations where the wearing of a face covering is not mandated, our customers are able to make a personal choice, and we kindly request everyone respects each other’s preferences.”
Virgin Atlantic says: “As we learn to live with Covid and with the legal requirement to wear a face mask now removed in England, we believe our customers should have the personal choice whether to wear a mask onboard, on routes where international regulations around mask-wearing do not apply.”
Jet2 and Tui have both announced a move to optional mask rules on some flights.
If I am currently abroad, must I still to fill in the form/get a test?
Only if you plan to arrive before 4am on Friday 18 March. For unvaccinated travellers due to return before then, it may be rational to defer their arrival to save cash and hassle by avoiding tests.
I’ve already booked tests but I arrive after Friday – can I get a refund?
That depends on the policy of your testing company. The Independent has long recommended that travellers book tests as late as possible to avoid the risk of paying for unnecessary procedures.
Any sign of similar thinking in the US and elsewhere?
“Competitive reopening” – governments scrapping travel restrictions in a bid to rescue their tourist industries – is well under way.
But the American government has generally been very slow in easing Covid travel rules. Just in case, book the pre-departure test for the US (and anywhere else) as late as possible in case things change.
Could Britain’s tough rules return?
Not according to the DfT’s statement: “In future, the government’s default approach will be to use the least stringent measures, if appropriate, to minimise the impact on travel as far as possible – given the high personal, economic and international costs border measures can have – and the contingency measures will only be implemented in extreme circumstances.”