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Move to two-tier travel system with lateral flow tests predicted

Both Airlines UK and Abta expect a government announcement on the changes to international travel restrictions this week – with the former predicting a switch to a two-tier, two test system allowing for lateral flow to be used instead of PCR.

The government’s Global Travel Taskforce is due to review the current traffic light system by October 1, and the latest of the green-amber-red list update was due this week.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, which lobbies the government on behalf of UK-based carriers, told Travel Weekly’s Future of Travel conference he expects an announcement this week to cover the strategic review element, not just the country lists.

He said it was likely “the two announcements will be brought together” either on Thursday or Friday. His comments follow both the health secretary and prime minister suggesting re-appointed transport secretary Grant Shapps would give an update on international travel “shortly”.

Alderslade explained: “This is the last review of the [Global Travel Taskforce] checkpoints. That’s when we will know what’s happening on the tests front.”

Airlines UK and Abta were signatories to a letter to Boris Johnson on Wednesday urging the scrapping of testing requirements for vaccinated passengers.

But Alderslade told Future of Travel delegates: “The worry we have is PCR removal is built-in now. We might end up with two lateral flow tests.”

He insisted the pre-departure test required of travellers before they board a flight heading for the UK “has to go”.

“The inconvenience and the sheer faff remains and that’s what’s stopping people from booking,” he said. “The worry is that we get them [lateral flow tests] and we’re stuck with them.”

His comments follow the health secretary’s comments in Parliament on Tuesday. Sajid Javid told transport select committee chair Huw Merriman he would be “pleased” with the update when Merriman asked if the government might switch to lateral flow tests, which are cheaper than PCRs.

Alderslade said: “I worry it’s too late now [for a move to no test requirement for vaccinated travellers]. I worry that the industry has given them a way out by asking them to get rid of PCRs.”

“I think we’re going to end up with two tests, and two tiers based on vaccination status.”

Alderslade said “it’s safe to say the sector isn’t 100% united” on the system it wants to replace the current traffic lights.

Abta wants a two-tier system based on vaccination status rather than country, but retaining a red list for destinations with known variants of concern – but aviation sources have told Travel Weekly they want to retain amber “so green means go for all, not just those vaccinated”.

But Alderslade flagged: “There are a lot of people worried about amber because, up to now, amber has been a warning sign for people. That’s a red light for many.”

He said: “We have to move from a country basis to a people basis.”

Abta’s head of communications Graeme Buck agreed that “we are not expecting a further review” after this week, and said the review was “more likely to be this week than later”.

While he refrained from making predictions he said “we will have to see what the government says”, adding: “What we really do need is stability and a firm footing to go on.”

Addressing the issue of PCR testing, Buck explained that the low levels of genome sequencing being carried out on the lab-based tests had “given us a justification for why PCRs are unnecessary” – because the government had insisted on their use as a means to identify variants of concern.

Alderslade said: “PCR tests are, quite frankly, a scam and a rip-off for customers.”

He added: “We are moving in the right direction. But as long as we have variants that creep up this government will be nervous about removing the testing, or at least having restrictions in their back pocket.”

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