Nicola Sturgeon finally cuts tests for international travel in Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament – Getty

Families may be able to enjoy a half-term break abroad using Scottish airports without spending hundreds of pounds on Covid-19 tests after Nicola Sturgeon’s government “reluctantly” agreed to ease the rules.

Michael Matheson, the Scottish Transport Secretary, said that “for practical reasons” the SNP-Green coalition had decided to fall in line with England by cutting the tests international travellers need to fly in and out of Scotland.

Travellers from non-red list countries will no longer have to provide evidence of a negative test result before departing for Scotland.

In addition, they will only have to take a lateral flow test within two days of arrival, rather than the more expensive PCR test. The latter can cost more than £60.

Mr Matheson provided no timescale but it is hoped both changes will come into force in time for the half-term school holidays next month, potentially reducing the costs of a family break abroad by hundreds of pounds.

The decision was warmly welcomed by the beleaguered tourism and aviation industries but the former warned it had come too late, with many Scots having already booked flights travelling back to English airports.

It represented a major about-turn by the Scottish Government following warnings that adopting a more stringent testing regime north of the Border would be pointless.

Edinburgh Airport – Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Ms Sturgeon initially refused to follow the UK Government’s changes in England when they were announced last week because of “significant concerns at the impact on public health”.

The Scottish Government argued that doing away with the more accurate PCR tests would make it more difficult to detect new Covid-19 variants and guard against them entering the country.

However, Ms Sturgeon admitted this week that Scottish holidaymakers could easily circumvent her stricter rules by flying into English airports.

Industry leaders have warned that thousands of Scots are booking breaks from Manchester and Newcastle for the October school holiday and to get some winter sunshine.

Unveiling the climbdown, Mr Matheson said the Scottish Government still had concerns that scrapping PCR tests on arrival “could weaken our ability to protect the public health of Scotland’s communities”.

“However, we also recognise that not having UK wide alignment causes significant practical problems and creates disadvantages for Scottish businesses,” he said.

“Also, if non-alignment led to travellers to Scotland choosing to route through airports elsewhere in the UK, the public health benefits of testing would be undermined in any event.”

Beleaguered aviation sector

After consulting Scotland’s beleaguered aviation sector, he said ministers had “reluctantly concluded that, for practical reasons, alignment with the UK is the best option”.

Details are still being finalised but The Telegraph understands that officials were aiming to scrap the requirement for a pre-departure test in Scotland from Oct 4, the same date as in England.

They were said to be working to try to replace PCR with lateral flow tests for international arrivals in time for the half-term holiday. Glasgow’s schools shut the week beginning Oct 10 and Edinburgh’s the following week.

In consultation with Public Health Scotland, the Scottish Government is also considering introducing extra safeguards and surveillance of inward travel to guard against the importation of new variants. This will be at no cost to travellers.

Unfortunate timing

But Joanne Dooley, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association, said: “There’s unlikely to be a rush to the travel agents this weekend to book for October breaks during the school holidays, as the timing means that most families will be unable to organise the time off work now to go on a family break.

“Those who did want to travel have already booked flights departing from English airports. Travel agents have also recently experienced clients who are already booked on a holiday departing from Scotland, requesting that their return flight is changed to a flight returning to England.”

Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, and Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said the announcement was “excellent news”.

In a joint statement, they said: “Scottish airports and airlines operating in Scotland will now work hard to help Scotland catch up again with England, in re-establishing connectivity and this will hopefully see more people book travel this winter season.

“It is crucial that the UK Government works with the devolved administrations and the aviation industry on operationalising the move to day-two lateral flow test in time for the different half-term holidays across the UK.

“The more notice people are given, the more this will encourage bookings and allow industry to prepare for increased traffic.”

Gordon Dewar, the chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, said: “We appreciate the Scottish Government’s moves to listen to industry this week and we understand their concerns, but we do think there must be more proportionality when it comes to balancing both the protection of public health and the importance of Scotland’s economic recovery.”

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