NICOLA Sturgeon has admitted an imminent decision on Covid tests for international travel will involve a “very difficult” choice between economic and health benefits.
The First Minister said she had “real concerns” about following England’s example and ending the need for negative PCR tests for international travel in and out of the country.
She said her Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith had warned her the move could increase the risk of importing new variants of the disease.
However she told MSPs that if Scotland and England had different regimes, there was a risk people living in Scotland might simply use airports south of the border instead.
“In those circumstances, we would potentially face the economic cost of stricter travel rules, without gaining enough public health benefit to justify that economic cost,” she said.
In a statement to Holyrood, she said she expected to announce a final decision within the next 48 hours.
It followed an outcry from Scottish travel operators earlier this week, who warned the country’s tourism industry was being put at “serious risk” though “economic self-harm”.
The UK Government is relaxing the testing regime from October, with a costly PCR test no lingered required for fully vaccinated travellers returning to the country.
However the Scottish Government said at the weekend that it would not follow suit – for now – because of “significant concerns at the impact on public health”.
It means holidaymakers coming into Scotland must still take a Covid test before leaving their holiday destination, and pay for a PCR test within two days of arriving home.
The Scottish Tourism Alliance said there was a grave concern that international bookings, revenue and visitors were already being lost, and if the policy continued it could “destroy any hopes of a recovery in 2022”.
Ms Sturgeon said her preference would have been for all four UK nations to keep the testing regime on health grounds, but the UK Government’s decision raised “inevitable questions” for Scotland.
She said: “We do have real concerns about easing the requirements on tests.
“That’s because we still need to guard against new variants of the virus being imported into the country – and also have a way of identifying quickly if a new variant does enter.
Testing both before someone’s departure to travel to Scotland, and soon after their arrival can help us to do that.
“Without that, we will have much less ability to pick up the presence of new variants.
“However, we also fully understand and agree with the desirability wherever possible of adopting a four nations approach to travel restrictions.
“And we must recognize the reality, however difficult this may be for us, that if Scotland adopts more stringent requirements than England, then people living in Scotland, who want to go abroad, may decide to fly from airports based in England.
“In those circumstances, we would potentially face the economic cost of stricter travel rules, without gaining enough public health benefit to justify that economic cost.
“So we must weigh up the public health risks of making this change – and I will be discussing this further with the Chief Medical Officer – with the pragmatic considerations I have set out and the understandable concerns of the travel industry.”
She added later: “The Chief Medical Officer has communicated to me very real concerns about removing the requirement for pre-departures testing, and the risk that then gives to us of importing variants.
“On the other hand, [there are] the concerns of the travel industry of not having an aligned position across the UK.
“That is the very real consideration we’re trying to weigh up, and we will come to a decision over the next two days.”
Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “The Scottish Government must come to a swift decision on the future of international travel restrictions.
“Specifically, around the continued need for Day 2 PCR testing for fully vaccinated travellers, which will be removed in England and has the potential to cause serious economic harm to Scotland’s travel, tourism and hospitality sectors and the broader business community.
“A four-nations approach to re-opening up Scotland’s international travel sector is essential to supporting Scotland’s aviation sector and Scotland’s economic recovery.
“Without alignment, Scottish airports and businesses will miss out on vital trade amd business as passengers seek out more cost effective and less restrictive travel options south of the border.”