THERE was a palpable sense of relief from the international travel sector north of the Border on Monday when the Scottish Government confirmed it would be part of a major four-nations move to scrap coronavirus testing requirements for fully vaccinated people.
The Scottish Government said that, from 4am on February 11, testing will no longer be a requirement for adults “who have completed a full course of an approved vaccine, usually at least two doses”.
It has been a long journey indeed to get to this stage. The international travel sector has throughout the pandemic had to struggle with the tightest of restrictions. And many millions of would-be travellers will have seen their plans to go overseas dashed time and again since 2020.
Of course, there have been stages of the pandemic, particularly the grim and deadly waves of Covid-19 which preceded widespread roll-out of vaccines, during which government moves to restrict international travel were entirely understandable given public health has rightly been and remains the priority.
However, we have for months now been in a very different world in terms of high vaccination rates.
Hopes of UK travellers were dashed again as the Omicron variant emerged late last year and the rules, which had been relaxed across the four nations in the autumn, were tightened again.
Thankfully, the requirement for fully vaccinated people arriving in or returning to the UK to take pre-departure tests overseas, reimposed amid the Omicron surge, was removed again earlier this month.
And the relaxation of travel rules announced this week, effective from February 11, represents a huge stride forward, by removing the expense, hassle and uncertainty for fully vaccinated travellers created by the requirement for them to take a coronavirus test within two days of arriving in or returning to the UK.
Currently, fully vaccinated people arriving in or returning to any of the UK nations from overseas must book and pay for such a “day two” lateral flow or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before they travel.
Children under the age of 18 will continue to be treated as fully vaccinated and therefore will also benefit from the latest relaxation of the rules across the UK.
This column last Friday flagged the importance of the Scottish Government scrapping tests for fully vaccinated travellers. It was noted that, 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. By that time, it appeared almost certain from various reports, not disputed by the UK Government, that this scrapping of tests was about to be announced for England.
What was key for the international travel sector in Scotland, spanning holiday companies, hotel operators, travel agents, airlines, and airports and ground-handling activities, was that the Scottish Government was not only in tune with this impending move but would also not delay announcing that it would do the same.
Given all that this key sector in Scotland has gone through in the last two years, the need for a timely announcement and certainty was absolutely crucial. Thankfully, the Scottish Government delivered this, albeit with a note of caution.
And, although there was a wary tone, the Scottish Government did demonstrate a solid awareness of the importance of the relaxation of the testing rules to the international travel sector.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, addressing the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, said the measures would provide “much-needed support for the travel sector”.
While the latest changes are a major step in opening international travel for those who have taken up the opportunity to protect themselves and others from coronavirus by getting vaccinated, those who have not will also see some relaxation of the rules applying to them. The Scottish Government announced on Monday that non-vaccinated travellers would from February 11 still be required to take pre-departure tests, and a PCR test on or before day two after arrival. However, the requirement for isolation will end for these travellers, and they will no longer have to take a day eight test.
Announcing the changes on Monday, Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport Michael Matheson said: “These measures will significantly open up international travel and were agreed on a UK-wide basis.
“The measures will be extremely welcome for the Scottish tourism and aviation sectors, encouraging travel from our airports.”
However, then came the note of caution, with Mr Matheson adding: “While this is a positive step which will be welcomed by many, we believe further surveillance measures will be necessary across all nations – as intelligence will help in terms of variants of concern. It was agreed further work to take this forward will be carried out over the coming weeks.”
Ms Sturgeon provided further detail of these “surveillance” system plans on Tuesday.
She said: “The four UK governments…agreed to work on a new surveillance system to identify any future variants of concern. The Scottish Government would have preferred this system to be in place before removing the need for vaccinated people to take tests – however, as we have done in the past, we do recognise the wider benefits of adopting a common approach where that is possible.
“While these changes will be very welcome to travellers and, of course, to the travel industry, it is important and I think responsible to point out that no government can completely rule out having to tighten travel requirements again if certain circumstances – most obviously another new variant – were to arise.”
Thankfully, however, she appeared to conclude the travel part of her update on a more optimistic note, declaring: “But for now – and hopefully for the long term – it is really positive that these measures can be lifted. It opens the way for family reunions, the prospect again of holidays overseas and, of course, much-needed support for the travel sector.”
While nothing can be ruled out, it is absolutely crucial in future policy-making to take into account that we are in a completely different world now given vaccine roll-out. And hopefully the testing requirements being removed for fully vaccinated travellers will be gone for good.
It has been a wearying time both in Scotland and around the world for the international travel sector and those wishing to visit other countries.
While people in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK will need to continue to watch the rules and restrictions in countries they wish to visit and adhere to these, it appears things are moving in the right direction internationally on this front.
The response of The Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), which represents travel agents, signalled relief that the restrictions were at last being lifted but also painted a crystal-clear picture of what the sector had been through.
Responding to the Scottish Government’s announcement on Monday, SPAA president Mike Tibbert said: “At last, we are seeing constructive steps in restoring confidence in international travel for the fully vaccinated with today’s announcement. This is overdue, but welcome, news as even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been calling for countries to lift their travel restrictions.”
Highlighting the protracted nature of the sector’s travails, Mr Tibbert declared: “The seemingly endless changes and updates to travel regulation have been immensely disruptive for the whole of [Scotland’s] travel sector, with devastating effect on our economy and individual businesses.”
However, he added: “On this milestone day, what we need is strategic planning for the future. We need reassurance that, if new variants are discovered, we do not return to knee-jerk, draconian measures to shut down international travel. The WHO has stated that international travel bans ‘do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress’.”
The WHO recommended last week that countries “lift or ease international traffic bans”.
Mr Tibbert’s point about this view from the WHO – which also declared “the failure of travel restrictions introduced after the detection and reporting of [the] Omicron variant to limit international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time” – is a key one.
Hopefully, this is another reason the international travel sector and those wishing to see the world again can be hopeful that restrictions for the fully vaccinated will not be reimposed once they have gone.