<p>Homeward bound: lifeguards on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, from where 292 passengers are currently isolating after their plane landed 13 minutes too early at Gatwick   </p>

Homeward bound: lifeguards on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, from where 292 passengers are currently isolating after their plane landed 13 minutes too early at Gatwick

A half-hearted switching back on of the runway lights

The Man Who Pays His Way: Britain’s travel industry, the best in the world two years ago, has been butchered

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 10 January 2022 06:47
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Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, is a smart airline boss. He evidently understands the importance of diplomacy.

Less than an hour after the government had confirmed that the harsh, expensive and onerous testing rules introduced to “buy time” against the Omicron variant of coronavirus would end on Friday morning, Mr Weiss wrote: “We want to thank the prime minister, chancellor of the Exchequer and secretary of state for transport – and their teams – for working with us to lead the way in returning travel at scale, and in turn, boosting prospects for economic recovery.”

It is not in Virgin Atlantic’s interests to cheese off Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps, so I understand why the Virgin Atlantic boss chose his words carefully.

But it’s important to call out what the government’s latest U-turn on travel represents: a half-hearted switching back on of the runway lights.

To the contrary: the removal of measures imposed hastily six weeks ago is the very definition of “too little, too late”.

It just takes us back to where we were from 24 October to 30 November where arrivals take a single post-arrival test, which can be a quick and cheap lateral flow test.

When the UK introduced Europe’s most onerous and expensive testing rules overnight, we were told that these would stay in place not a minute longer than necessary.

It was clear before Christmas that the international travel measures were futile, which is why hotel quarantine ended. In time, I expect the travel heavyweights on the Transport Select Committee will demand to know why these tests continued for another three weeks, but by then it will be too late.

While travel businesses jostle to brag about superlative sales to prospective travellers who are now feeling more confident, a word of caution. There is no guarantee that the government will do anything different when the next variant of concern appears – continuing the on-off travel policy that ministers have demonstrated throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The arbitrary nature of the rules is currently irritating many of the 292 passengers aboard Tui’s flight BY77 from Liberia in Costa Rica, which touched down at Gatwick at 3.47am on Friday.

While they wait for a negative result from PCR tests, they must self-isolate – unable to leave the house except for emergencies. Had the captain taken off just 13 minutes later, the potential threat to British public health presented by the people on board would not have changed – but the obligation to quarantine would have vanished.

Barely an hour later, another Tui Boeing 787 arrived at Manchester from Barbados, with a similar payload who can wander and mingle at will. Their duty is to take a test at the time of their choosing on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

While other nations demand post-arrival tests, none that I know of are so relaxed about the timing. If it is unimportant, why have it at all – unless the purpose is to look tough?

Politics is the only purpose I can see for continuing France’s futile and harmful travel ban on the UK. At a time when British people are booking summer holidays, keeping the frontiers of an entire nation closed looks weird.

But it is only six months since UK ministers imposed an effective travel ban on France, in the shape of the incoherent “amber plus” rule that has never been properly explained and infuriated the French.

Britain’s travel industry, the best in the world two years ago, has been butchered. And the UK government has done nothing “to lead the way in returning travel at scale”.

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