The cost of Covid tests for foreign travel needs to be driven down, the transport secretary has said, adding he was no longer advising people against booking summer holidays abroad.
It comes as the government gave more details about how England’s traffic light system for travel will work.
Passengers will have to take Covid tests before leaving and on returning – even from low-risk green countries.
There will be a watch list for those that could go from green to amber.
But the travel industry has expressed concern about the government’s testing requirements, warning it could make holidays unaffordable for many travellers.
Announcing the findings of the Global Travel Taskforce, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said foreign holidays could resume on 17 May at the earliest.
He told BBC Radio 4’s today programme: “This is the first I’m able to come on and say I’m not advising against booking foreign holidays. Yes, you’ll want to check what the situation is in two or three weeks’ time when that list, the green, amber, red, is produced, you’ll want to know that you’ve got good holiday insurance and flexible flights and the rest of it.
“But for the first time I think there is light at the end of the tunnel and we’ll be able to restart international travel, including cruises by the way, in a safe and secure way, knowing about the vaccinations, everything we know about the disease this year, and of course that abundance of caution, having the tests in place.”
How the traffic light system will work:
- Green: Passengers will not need to quarantine on return, but must take a pre-departure test, as well as a PCR test on return to the UK
- Amber: Travellers will need to quarantine for 10 days, as well as taking a pre-departure test and two PCR tests
- Red: Passengers will have to pay for a 10-day stay in a managed quarantine hotel, as well as a pre-departure test and two PCR tests
Mr Shapps told BBC Breakfast the use of PCR tests – those needing to be sent to a lab – enabled scientists to detect potential variants of concern.
But he said he was “concerned” about the cost of the tests, adding that the government was committed to driving down the price of these by working with the private sector.
“I think they are too expensive and that may be that there needs to be more entrants in the market, and we’ll be taking a very close look at that,” he said.
The transport secretary said the government was also looking at the possibility of allowing people to take cheaper lateral flow tests before travelling.
The government has not yet said which countries will be green, amber or red – but said it would do so by early May.
Mr Shapps said countries would be categorised based on level of infections and vaccinations, variants of concern and the quality of their genetic sequencing.
He said this list would be kept under constant review and that he was hopeful European countries would be upgraded as their vaccination rates improve.
Nearly 40 countries are currently on the UK government’s current red list of countries from which travel is banned, except for British and Irish nationals and those with residence rights in the UK.
Last Friday, Pakistan, the Philippines, Kenya and Bangladesh were added to list, which also includes Brazil, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.
The rules will be reviewed at the end of June to see whether any measures can be rolled back, the government said.
At the moment, almost anyone seeking to travel to England must first take a coronavirus test before departure and then two tests when they arrive, bought through a private provider. Children under 11 are exempt.
Heathrow Airport chief executive officer John Holland-Kaye said the cost of PCR tests could make holidays unaffordable for some.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said: “Why if you’re fully vaccinated, and you’re coming back from a low-risk country where there are no variants of concern, that the government in its own judgment has said, why do you still need to take a… PCR test after you have arrived?
“I think for most people that would make no sense, and this is where we need to make sure that travel is something anyone can do and is not just something for the wealthy.”
Consumer group Which? estimated that each PCR test – which is just one of the tests needed – could cost about £120 per person.
However, the government said it would work with airlines, travel firms and the test providers to see whether prices can be reduced. That could involve cheaper tests, or the government providing the pre-departure tests.
Today’s report is not the grand reopening many in the travel industry wanted.
There is real worry, particularly among lower cost carriers, that around £100 per person for a test will dissuade travellers from booking, with many paying more for it than for their flights.
But there are suggestions that the government has tried to address some of the concerns too.
The introduction of a green watch list, to flag any countries potentially about to move from green to amber, is an attempt to avoid some of last year’s confusion, as people rushed back to the UK before countries required quarantine.
Nothing is guaranteed yet, but the government now says it will confirm whether or not international travel will restart on 17 May early next month.
How early is the next question.
The first ministers of Scotland and Wales have both already argued that 17 May will be too early for foreign holidays to resume.
Northern Ireland has not yet announced its plans, but its chief medical officer has said it would be “premature” to book a foreign summer trip.
Industry body Airlines UK said that the proposed framework “does not represent a reopening of travel as promised by ministers”.
“The insistence on expensive and unnecessary PCR testing rather than rapid testing – even for low-risk countries – will pose an unsustainable burden on passengers, making travel unviable and unaffordable for many people,” said its chief executive Tim Alderslade.
“It is also a further setback for an industry on its knees and the UK’s wider economic recovery,” he said, adding that “all the evidence suggests” you can reopen travel safely “with more proportionate measures”.
Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said more detail and clarity about the government’s strategy was vital.
“This must include the criteria by which the ‘traffic lights’ will be decided, as well as clear information for travellers and industry, about what test will be required and resulting costs,” he said.
It comes as official figures released on Thursday showed the number of weekly deaths involving coronavirus in England and Wales has dropped 92% since the January peak.
Meanwhile, the latest government figures also showed a further 53 people had died with coronavirus within 28 days of a positive test, while another 3,030 confirmed cases were reported.
The number of people fully vaccinated is now over six million, while 31.8 million have received just one dose.
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