People in England can “start to think” about booking summer holidays, the transport secretary has said, pledging that government would work to drive down the cost of tests needed for international travel.
Grant Shapps was speaking after the government confirmed that from 17 May countries would be placed in a traffic light system with green, amber and red lists that would set out whether, and where, travellers must isolate on returning to England.
“I’m not telling people that they shouldn’t book summer holidays now, it’s the first time that I’ve been able to say that for many months,” he told Sky News.
The plans have already been criticised by airports, airlines and the travel industry, which said they risked recreating a period when only the wealthy could afford to travel.
Travellers returning from the lowest-risk countries will not have to quarantine but will have to pay for tests, including PCR tests that cost about £100 per person on arrival in England.
Shapps said he was looking to “drive down the costs” of coronavirus tests required for international travel to resume. He said he would “not spare” those companies that were seen to be profiteering.
“Costs are definitely a concern, it’s one of the factors this year, and we have to accept we’re still going through a global pandemic,” he told Sky News. “And so we do have to be cautious and I’m afraid that does involve having to have some tests and the like.
“But, I am undertaking today to drive down the costs of those tests and looking at some innovative things we could do. For example, whether we can help provide the lateral flow test that people need to take before they depart the country that they are in to return to the UK.
“And also drive down the costs of the test when they get home if it’s in the green category, where it’s just a single test.”
The travel industry wants the cheaper lateral flow tests to be used more widely. The Heathrow chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said there were “far better ways” than using a costly PCR testing system for returning passengers.
“It’s good news that we now have flying opened up again from 17 May at the earliest, and I think the risk-based approach with this traffic light system is a good step forward, and I think Grant Shapps has done a very good job to steer that through government,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“All of us will welcome the fact that if you are going to a country that is green, where there’s very low risk of variants of concern, very low levels of Covid, that you won’t need to quarantine when you’re back.”
He added: “If you are a British citizen, you’ve been fully vaccinated, and are going to somewhere low risk such as Israel or the United States, not only do you have to have a test before you get on the plane coming back to show that you don’t have Covid, you then have to take an expensive PCR test after you arrive to demonstrate again.”
Passengers were also being charged far more for PCR tests in the UK than abroad, the industry claimed.
Research from the travel association Abta and the Airport Operators Association found that the cost of PCR tests for international travel in the UK was more than double the average across other European countries. A UK pre-departure PCR test cost an average £128 per person, compared with just under £62 on average across Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, they said.
The total cost for an individual travelling to even a green-listed European destination would be £306 in testing alone, under the rules that require a UK pre-departure test, a second abroad at the end of a holiday, and a final test in the UK on return.
Mark Tanzer, the chief executive of ABTA said: “Small changes, like requiring a PCR test only if the individual gets a positive result from a lateral flow test, would make international travel more accessible and affordable while still providing an effective mitigation against re-importation of the virus.
“The government should also consider whether those who have been vaccinated can be exempt from testing requirements, should scientific evidence suggest reduced transmissibility.”
Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said: “The cost of testing could act as a significant barrier to the meaningful restart to aviation and should not be underestimated. A summer holiday will be out of reach for many and damage an already badly hit aviation and travel industry even further.”