Boris Johnson today suggested families could be allowed to take cheap lateral flow tests instead of more expensive laboratory-based tests to go on holidays abroad after a backlash from aviation chiefs over his new traffic light system.
The PM’s travel scheme will see countries rated green, amber or red using criteria including vaccination levels, case numbers and the prevalence of coronavirus variants.
Travellers returning from countries rated ‘green’ will not be required to self-isolate but they will still have to take pre-departure and post-arrival tests.
PCR tests, the current standard for international travel, can cost £100 which means a family of four with children over the age of 11 would face a bill of at least £400.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said a requirement for PCR tests would price many people out of holidays abroad.
He called for the Government to drop the testing requirement for ‘green’ countries or to use lateral flow tests instead while Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss warned against a ‘prohibitively expensive testing system’.
In response to the concerns raised, Mr Johnson said during a visit to an AstraZeneca facility in Macclesfield that he wanted to ‘make things as easy as we possibly can’ for holidaymakers and Mr Lundgren was ‘right to focus on this issue’.
The PM said the Government will look to ‘see what we can do to make things as flexible and as affordable as possible’ as he also insisted he has not ‘given up’ on hitting his roadmap date of May 17 for the return of some international travel.
Lateral flow tests can deliver in-person results within half an hour whereas PCR tests usually take at least 24 hours to be processed.
The Government is planning to offer two lateral flow tests to every adult in England every week as part of its new mass testing plans. Reports suggest the Government can buy the tests for as little as £5 each.
The Government’s traffic light system for resuming international travel will assess countries on criteria like vaccination rates and coronavirus case numbers. Using those criteria, countries like the US and the UAE could be given ‘green’ status
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren today hit out at Boris Johnson’s traffic light system for resuming international travel
Mr Johnson’s system will see British travellers going to ‘green list’ countries required to take two Covid tests
How much could the testing requirement cost families going on holiday to ‘green list’ countries?
Current travel rules for entering the UK state that people must be able to show proof of a negative test taken in the three days before arrival.
It is recommended that these tests are of the PCR laboratory-based type which can cost approximately £100.
The new traffic light system states that travel from ‘green list’ countries will require people to be tested before and after they fly.
It is thought the system could consist of a mix of a PCR test before departure and a cheaper and more rapid lateral flow test on arrival back in the UK.
Children under the age of 11 do not have to be tested under the current rules.
But that means a family of four, with two children over the age of 11, could still face a testing bill of more than £400 under the new system.
Lateral flow tests are much cheaper than the standard PCR ones, with some reports suggesting No10 can buy them for as little as £5 each. They also offer results in as little as 15 minutes.
They are not as sensitive as the gold-standard laboratory tests, which can take up to three days to produce a result.
One study found they missed up to 40 per cent of asymptomatic cases and are less accurate when self-administered. However, they perform much better at picking up cases where people have a high viral load.
Under the Government’s scheme, sunseekers returning from countries in the green category will not have to isolate, although they will need to have tests before and after they fly.
Those coming back from red list countries would have to quarantine in a hotel for ten days, while arrivals from amber destinations will have to isolate at home.
Travellers returning to the UK are currently required to take a PCR test prior to departure.
The Telegraph reported that the traffic light scheme would likely require travellers to ‘green list’ countries to take a PCR test prior to departure and potentially a cheaper lateral flow test on arrival back in the UK.
Mr Lundgren told BBC Breakfast this morning that if countries meet the criteria for ‘green’ status then there should not be an expensive testing requirement.
He said: ‘There needs to be acceptable levels of rates of vaccination in the population, there needs to be controlled levels of also the infections in itself and also then low prevalence of variants of concern.
‘Clearly, if you have ticked those boxes then green is green, there should not be a need to put in more complexities and cost in order to travel to and from those destinations.
‘But what the Government came up with yesterday was that they were looking to introduce a two test system which means that even in those green countries, those green category of destinations, you would still then need to have on and take on additional costs to do so.
‘If the Government was choosing to take one of those PCR tests which is a cost way over and above what the cost is of an average Easyjet fare as an example, you wouldn’t open up international travel for everyone, you would open up international travel for people who can afford it.
‘I don’t think that is fair, I don’t think it is right and I don’t think it is really necessarily established from a medical and scientific point of view that it is the right thing to do.
‘If they choose however to go down that route to have the testing in place, it should be the same type of testing, the lateral flow testing which is much cheaper, more accessible and is being used to open up the domestic sectors as an example.’
Responding to Mr Lundgren’s comments on testing, Mr Johnson said: ‘I raised that very issue myself yesterday. I do think we want to make things as easy as we possibly can.
‘The boss of easyJet is right to focus on this issue. We’re going to see what we can do to make things as flexible and as affordable as possible.
‘I do want to see international travel start up again. We have to be realistic. A lot of the destinations that we want to go to at the moment are suffering a new wave of the illness, of Covid, as we know.
‘We can’t do it immediately, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve given up on May 17. We will be saying as much as we can, as soon as we can, about international travel.
‘I know how impatient people are to book their holidays if they possibly can but I think we just have to be prudent at this stage.’
Meanwhile, Mr Weiss said the traffic light system should work towards enabling people to return from ‘green’ countries without the need for coronavirus tests.
He said: ‘We can’t have a prohibitively expensive testing system that puts businesses, people and families off travelling.
‘Passengers travelling to and from ‘green’ countries should be able to do so freely, without testing or quarantine at all, and vaccinated passengers travelling to and from ‘amber’ countries should not face testing or quarantine.
‘Other than for ‘red’ countries, we do not believe quarantine is the answer for controlling the spread of the virus.’
Mr Weiss suggested that based on the Government’s traffic light criteria, destinations including the US, Israel and the Caribbean should all be on the ‘green list’ from May 17.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said the United Arab Emirates could be included as ‘they also have very high levels of vaccination’, adding: ‘There are plenty of long-haul countries which have low Covid levels, and many of them have high vaccination levels also.’
Mr Johnson yesterday refused to give a firm commitment to his roadmap date of May 17 for resuming non-essential international travel as the Government again told Britons to wait to book a summer holiday abroad.
The Prime Minister’s lockdown exit strategy said foreign holidays would return ‘no earlier than’ the middle of May.
But the initial findings of a Whitehall review on the subject said the ‘state of the pandemic abroad, and the progress of vaccination programmes in other countries’ means ministers are ‘not yet in a position to confirm that non-essential international travel can resume from that point’.
The findings said the Government ‘will confirm in advance whether non-essential international travel can resume on 17 May, or whether we will need to wait longer before lifting the outbound travel restriction’.
‘For the moment, the Government advises people not to book summer holidays abroad until the picture is clearer,’ the update said.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference he is ‘hopeful’ of hitting the May 17 date but he added: ‘I do not wish to give hostages to fortune or to underestimate the difficulties that we are seeing in some of the destination countries that people might want to go to.
‘We don’t want to see the virus being re-imported into this country from abroad, plainly there is a surge in other parts of the world and we have to be mindful of that and we have to be realistic.’