Stricter Covid-19 testing rules take effect for travellers flying to US

The rules are one more hurdle to clear for Americans who are living outside the US and for foreigners hoping to visit the country. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The United States on Monday (Dec 6) began requiring international travellers to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test taken no more than a day before their flights.

The move, intended to limit the spread of the Omicron variant, is causing headaches for many passengers.

Previously, fully vaccinated travellers could provide proof of a negative test taken within 72 hours of departure. The new requirement may be difficult for some to satisfy, because it can take more than a day to receive test results.

The new rules have some travellers wondering if they can stick to their planned itineraries.

They are one more hurdle to clear for Americans who are living outside the US and for foreigners hoping to visit for Christmas and the New Year.

From London to Taipei, travellers have been thinking about the scenarios that could emerge on a trip, such as what would happen if a flight is cancelled or if the traveller tests positive along the way.

Mr August Dichter, 24, said on Monday he had already spent two to three hours trying to figure out how to meet the testing requirement for his scheduled flight on Thursday to Philadelphia from London.

Mr Dichter, an American who just completed a year-long master's degree programme in Wales, said he had received conflicting messages from the airline, with some guidelines describing the new requirement and others still saying he had a 72-hour window.

Mr Dichter said he had been looking forward to travelling around Europe during his studies, but that it had not been easy.

"It has been a lot of hoops to jump through, and I know that I'm going to be able to jump through them all," he said. "But they seem to just keep being so tedious, and to add up, and make the arrival of coming home feel just a little further away."

Another American, Ms Candace Thomas, and her partner, Mr James Ridgers, flew to London from Los Angeles last week for a funeral and said that keeping up with the rule changes has been difficult.

"It's been very confusing," Ms Thomas, 36, said as she and Mr Ridgers, 43, waited in a long line at St Pancras train station in London on Monday to get tested before their flight on Tuesday.

"I'm confused right now, actually," Mr Ridgers said, because the couple did not have an appointment at the St Pancras testing centre and were unsure if they needed one.

They found out soon after that they could not get tested as walk-ins and made an appointment for three hours later.

The start to their trip was complicated too. They arrived before Britain's two-day quarantine requirement came into effect and ended up quarantining unnecessarily for a day because they were unsure whether the requirement applied to them. New rules also required a polymerase chain reaction test, so they spent more than £80 (S$145) each on tests for the second day of their trip.

"Every morning, it was waking up to tune in to the news to find out if (the rules) had changed or if we were going to need to quarantine for longer, or if we were even going to be able to come home," Ms Thomas said. "It was really touch-and-go there for a little while."

More than a dozen countries, including the US, have gone a step beyond testing requirements and have barred travellers who have recently been in any of eight southern African countries.

Health experts have criticised that policy and have urged caution, because so little is known yet about the Omicron variant, which was first detected and sequenced less than two weeks ago in South Africa.

Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, tried to add some perspective on Sunday on an ABC News programme.

She said: "What we don't yet know is how transmissible it will be, how well our vaccines will work, whether it will lead to more severe disease."

The stricter testing requirement for inbound travellers took effect just as airline travel was experiencing a rebound. The Sunday after Thanksgiving was the busiest travel day at US airports since February last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

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