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Covid: Cost of tests ‘is too much for people to travel on holiday’

The government has announced plans to safely reopen international travel, but says it cannot yet confirm whether foreign holidays can resume on 17 May.

A traffic light system will be used to categorise countries based on risk, and travellers will need to pay for tests when departing and returning to the UK.

The plans have been met with widespread frustration by the travel industry.

EasyJet says the policy risks rewinding the clock to a time when only wealthy people could afford to travel.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has insisted foreign holidays will be able to resume “safely and sustainably” under the new government rules.

It will require passengers to take coronavirus tests before they leave and on their return – even when returning from countries on the low-risk “green” list.

How the traffic light system will work:

  • Green: Passengers will not need to quarantine on return, but must take a pre-departure test (the type is unspecified), 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

A “green watch list” will also be created, of countries that could move from green to amber.

The government has not yet said which countries will be green, amber or red – but said it would do by early May. On Friday, Pakistan, the Philippines, Kenya and Bangladesh were added to the red list, meaning travel from there is banned except for British and Irish nationals and those with residence rights in the UK.

The rules will be reviewed at the end of June to see whether any measures can be rolled back, the government said.

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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.

EasyJet’s chief executive Johan Lundgren told the BBC that he did not understand why consumers could not take lateral flow tests, which are cheaper and quicker, when these tests are being used in workplaces to help the UK economy reopen.

“We have been very much in favour of introducing the traffic light system, but with the category of green – which they themselves have determined as being very low risk – why do you have a two-test mandated system, where one of them is a very expensive PCR test?” he said.

“That makes no sense to me and I’ve asked for the scientific rationale behind that, and I’ve yet to receive it.”

Consumer group Which? estimated that each PCR test – which is just one of the tests needed – could cost about £120 per person.

“Part of the problem in the UK is the very high cost of private testing,” said Which? travel editor Rory Boland.

“The overall cost of testing is too much for most people to travel or take a holiday to almost any destination.”

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.

Mr Shapps said: “The framework announced today will help allow us to reopen travel safely and sustainably, ensure we protect our hard-won achievements on the vaccine rollout and offer peace of mind to both passengers and industry as we begin to take trips abroad once again.”

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Analysis box by Caroline Davies, transport correspondent

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.

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Boris Johnson initially said 17 May was the earliest possible date for holidaying abroad – although the latest plans do not confirm whether travel can take place from that date.

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.

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“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”.

Travellers arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5
The travel industry says lateral flow tests, which are cheaper and faster, would be preferable to PCR tests

Labour 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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