Robert Courts is Transport Minister and MP for Witney.
2020 has been a year like no other. During this pandemic our reality shifted, slowly at first – but as borders closed, flights were grounded and millions stayed at home, our world became less connected, less open, and less familiar.
It’s time for that to change. Our decisive action to prevent the virus from spreading freely throughout the world came at the price of a hammer blow to the UK aviation industry, a booming sector that in normal years contributes around £14 billion to the economy and directly employs 130,000 people.
But aviation is a British success story, and we must get it back in the air. That’s why we’ve developed the Test to Release scheme which, just like the vaccines now around the corner, will provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the sector.
In just a few short weeks, passengers arriving into England will be able to choose to take a Covid test at home. This is to shorten the required period of self-isolation by up to a week and go about their daily lives – provided, of course, that they receive a negative result.
It’s a real game-changer. Not only will it allow for the restart of our world-leading long-haul airline industry, but crucially, as it relies on a single test, it is also affordable – opening up short-haul travel too. A UK that has visitors from across the globe is what we’ve come to know and love, so I’m glad we’ll once again see tourists from Brussels to Bermuda in our towns and cities.
In addition, as we are insisting on the use of the private testing network, it will not burden NHS Test and Trace. Doctors, nurses and teachers – these vital workers must have first call on public resources.
Our route out of this pandemic is looking more positive than ever, but we must focus on what we can do right now to bolster travel while keeping the public safe. Giving people the choice to test on day five not only encourages travel, but supports the industry when it needs it most.
From the very first days of the pandemic we’ve followed the science, and Test to Release is no different. Scientists have told us that the effectiveness of a day five test is significantly greater than the effectiveness of a single test on arrival.
Of course, I understand the frustration felt when we saw other countries such as Germany, France and Iceland rushing to eliminate the need for self-isolation through testing on arrival. However, we’ve seen time and again that countries didn’t in fact eliminate the need for self-isolation. The practice was just re-introduced when imported case numbers rose once more.
There are no easy ways to solve the problem of imported cases. That’s why we stuck with self-isolation plus Travel Corridors while looking for a longer-term solution. I believe Test to Release is that. So by taking this approach we can be absolutely certain that we can continue to prevent the spread of this virus while reigniting confidence in international travel.
My lifelong passion for aviation is rooted in its ability to connect people. Test to Release is the best example of how we can make that happen again. For those that choose to, it will provide the ability to holiday again, to visit family again, and to do business again. It signals to the world that the UK is ready to once again lead the way when it comes to travel and tourism. Test to Release will bridge the gap between the dark days of the pandemic and the bright future ahead.
But it’s only been possible thanks to the tireless work of this Government, hand in hand with the private sector. We’ve been working flat out with the health, travel and testing sectors to revive tourism and travel. No doubt there will be tough months to come but airlines, ports, and operators can look to the future with more optimism than ever before.
We know how hard it’s been for an industry that provides for so many, and that’s why we’re offering a new package of financial support in the New Year for English airports and ground handlers serving them, to shore up jobs and reinforce local economies. Travelling has always been one of the great joys of modern life, and I’m delighted to say it will be again, in 2021 and beyond.