Comment: Expensive Covid testing could spell the end of outbound travel

There is a more affordable alternative, says Steve Endacott

The government has rightly put the country in a third lockdown to try to control the Covid-19 virus, protect the NHS and save lives. I’m sure nobody in the travel industry would argue with this or the need to ban all non-essential holiday travel during lockdown.

What does not make sense, however, is how complicated the government is making Covid-19 testing for travellers in general, and holidaymakers in particular.

With its massive buying power, the government is delivering the higher-quality PCR tests that require laboratory processing via its network of test centres, for less than £10 per test. These tests are free for UK citizens who have Covid-19 symptoms, and I’m told these facilities are running at 65% capacity as we near the peak of this wave of infections.

However, once the vaccination programme ramps up over the next few months, and the vulnerable are vaccinated, lockdown will inevitably ease and UK citizens thoughts will turn to long-overdue holidays.

Unfortunately, a rebound of the UK outbound travel industry will be severely impacted by the inability of holidaymakers to access cost-effective PCR testing.

Currently the average price for a private PCR test which is needed 72 hours before departure for most destinations, is more than £100 per person, and the government is now demanding a further inbound test 72 hours before return to the country, which is on top of the existing and optional test to release scheme which can allow for an early end to quarantine on receipt of a negative test taken after five days of arrival. Together, this amounts to £300 per person in testing costs, which will put holidays out of reach for most.

I’m sure this is not the government’s intention, but a combination of poor consultation of our industry, and weak lobbying by our industry, has meant some obvious solutions do not appear to have been explored.

In a letter to the Prime Minister and my local MP, cc’d to Abta, I’ve again asked the government to review the following options.

Access to a £25 government test

It is a holidaymaker’s choice to go on holiday and they should pay to have a test to allow this. However, why not use the expanded testing infrastructure the government has set up as Covid-19 cases start coming down again as we come out of lockdown and approach the summer? Customers would pay £25 per person per test, and all the government needs to do is issue a test result on different headed paper. Hardly complex and it would be easy to remove the option if the need for standard tests rise to much.

Rapid lateral flow testing in Resort

Sourcing a test in a foreign country, using a different language, when you don’t have your own car available as transport, is much more daunting than sourcing a UK PCR test. On the basis that holidaymakers have already passed a PCR test to exit the country, there is a much lower risk that in seven days they will return infected. Therefore, less accurate but still effective rapid lateral flow tests could be allowed. Holidaymakers could take these on holiday with them and perform the test before returning, for a much more reasonable average cost of £15-20.

The government is using these same tests on all lorry drivers departing and entering the UK by sea, so it’s hard to see why they should not be accepted for holidaymakers as well.

Rapid lateral flow tests on day five

Holidaymakers will have already passed two tests by the time the come to ‘test to release’, five days after return from holiday. So it would appear logical to accept the cheaper rapid lateral flow tests at this point.

As far as I am aware, there is no scientific evidence that ‘travel’ is a major contributor to spreading Covid-19, at least compared to a visit to a supermarket or eating out, as we were encouraged to do last summer.

In a Covid-19 world, every decision is a balance between risk and economic damage. I do not envy the complexity and number of decisions the government needs to make, but I think it is right that the travel sector demands a higher level of consultation and input into decisions which are so damaging to holiday booking levels.

There is clearly a massive pent-up demand for holidays but, unless clarity over testing is achieved quickly, it will be a boom in UK tourism we see and a wave of collapses across the outbound travel sector.

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