The need for costly PCR Covid tests when international travel resumes has been widely condemned from all sides of the travel industry.
The edict by the government’s Global Travel Taskforce was criticised as a “hammer blow” for business travel while independent agents and operators joined easyJet in hitting out at the costs involved for holidaymakers.
EasyJet, Aito and the Business Travel Association led the attack on the requirements as part of a traffic light system to be used to categorise countries based on risk, as previously announced.
Travellers will need to pay for tests when leaving and returning to the UK with the government yet to confirm that overseas travel can resume from May 17.
Abta and the AOA found the average UK pre-departure PCR test costs were £128 per person, while the average pre-departure test cost across eight key destinations only comes to just under £62.
They said individuals travelling from the UK to a European destination would pay an average of £306 for testing as they will need a UK pre-departure test, a pre-departure test in their destination country at the end of their holiday and a post-arrival test in the UK if they have flown to a green country under the new traffic light system announced today.
Aito calculated that the two UK tests alone for ‘green’ destinations would cost between £180 and £300 per person – or a total of between £720 and £1,200 for a family of four.
Chairman Chris Rowles said: “It smacks of elitism, especially when lorry drivers from all over Europe are permitted to travel to the UK based on the much cheaper lateral flow test.
“While green destination holidaymakers will not need to quarantine on arrival back in the UK unless their test results prove positive, it is certainly not an encouraging start point.
“If those travelling have been vaccinated, whether ne jab or tow, that should suffice – otherwise, what on earth is the point of the UK’s highly successful vaccination project and the proposed travel certification mentioned?”
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said: “A two test system including a PCR test for travel from low risk green countries is a blow to all travellers wishing to visit family and friends or take a much-needed holiday this summer.
“This risks reversing the clock and making flying only for the wealthy. Moreover it is hugely frustrating that the taskforce has not delivered what the prime minister said they should achieve in making this flexible and affordable.
“Whilst easyJet has supported the development of a framework for travel, green should mean green – by definition these countries are low risk including that of variants of concern.
“The government has not provided us with any scientific basis for the PCR requirement when returning from these countries rather than the lateral flow tests being used to reopen domestic sectors.
“We will continue to engage with the government to focus on the evidence and demonstrate that unrestricted travel from low risk countries is safe and possible this summer.
“As the rest of British society and the economy opens up it makes no sense to treat travel, particularly to low risk countries, differently. We are ready and able to ramp up to safely take customers away so I appeal to the government to re-examine the data and this approach before the end May.”
Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer admitted that the requirement for a PCR test when arriving back from a ‘green list’ country could prove a “cost-barrier” for many people but welcomed the fact that the government has committed to engaging with industry on the issue.
He 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 whilst 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.
“Given that the summer season is a short window, which is critical for the survival of many travel companies, it is important the government regularly reviews the green list, ensuring that those countries which meet the criteria are added as soon as possible.
“Closing off destinations unnecessarily will significantly affect the industry’s opportunity to recover this summer.
“We also need to hear more from government on their plans to provide targeted ongoing support for travel businesses, as it is clear the recovery of the sector will be gradual.”
Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said said: “Whilst we are pleased that the number of tests have been reduced for countries on the green list, we must ensure that travel can remain accessible for all, particularly families, so we urge the government to consider affordable testing options – such as lateral flow tests – as part of this framework.
“It is encouraging to read that the Global Travel Taskforce wants to engage with the industry to find a solution to the testing issues and recognises how vital the industry is to the economy and bringing loved ones together.”
Miles Morgan Travel boss Miles Morgan tweeted: “Delighted with the introduction of the green watch list to avoid the stressful rush home of last year for holidaymakers. Mystified I can go to Cornwall with no test but visiting countries with a lower infection rate means a £120pp test. This sadly means holidays for the wealthy.”
Steve Heapy, chief executive of Jet2.com and Jet2holidays, called for further clarity on a “cost-effective” Covid-19 testing regime for travellers.
“We want our customers to enjoy a happy and healthy holiday, but without the additional cost of expensive pre-departure and post-arrival testing on top,” he said, describing the announcement as demonstrating as a clear ambition to restart international travel.
He added: “We have taken time to study the Global Travel Taskforce’sframework, and we are extremely disappointed at the lack of clarity and detail.
“After several weeks exploring how to restart international travel, with substantial assistance and input from the industry, the framework lacks any rigorous detail about how to get international travel going again. In fact, the framework is virtually the same as six months ago.
“Following the publication of the framework today, we still do not know when we can start to fly, where we can fly to and the availability and cost of testing. Rather than answering questions, the framework leaves everyone asking more.
“It has been over a year since international travel was first suspended because of the pandemic. Much has been achieved in that time, making it even more frustrating that we are still to receive a clear framework on how to restart international travel. We know it can be done, in a safe and secure way, and we will continue to support the government to achieve this.”
Speaking on a Travel Weekly webcast, Heapy added: “Four PCR tests to an ordinary family is a hell of a lot of money. People can’t afford it. It’s just not sustainable.”
BTA chief executive Clive Wratten described the GTTF report as “yet another hammer blow” to the business travel industry.
“Whilst we welcome the acknowledgement of the importance of business and leisure travel to the UK economy, this theoretical framework provides no more certainty than the prime minister’s brief comments on Monday,” he said.
“The traffic light system is something we have long campaigned for. However, it is only one piece of the jigsaw if the aviation, business, and leisure travel industries are to survive.
“We urgently ask the government to at the very least maintain the current furlough scheme until September for the entire travel supply chain. This will hopefully enable us to contribute to UK plc as soon as it is safe to do so.”
A Scottish Passenger Agents Association spokesperson said: “We have some initial reservations on cost and availability of testing, the traffic light system and how vaccination passes will work operationally.
“Our chief concern is the requirement for a PCR test and the costs associated with this. PCR testing is currently an expensive option which will place financial strain on families who travel together.
“Many of our clients are still trying to take holidays postponed from 2020 and paid for back in 2019.
“They had no way of knowing that their holiday cost would have to include hundreds of pounds worth of testing.
“We’re hopeful that, as Grant Shapps has said this morning, the task force will use the time between now and 16 May to look at affordability and availability.
“We would like to see the cost of this driven down or alternative forms of acceptable testing such as antigen and lateral flow.”
Jacqueline Dobson, president of Barrhead Travel, said: “We’re encouraging the UK Government to follow through on its commitment to reviewing testing costs in order to make travel affordable and accessible to all.”
Flight Centre EMEA managing director Steve Norris said: “We stand with transport secretary Grant Shapps and his concern about the cost of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. We agree with his suggestion that a ‘bring your own’ system of lateral flow tests could be explored, and implore him to work with private providers over the next four weeks to reduce costs for everyone, or we risk travel becoming the reserve of the privileged few.
“We think it’s important that the taskforce clearly communicates its strategy as we anticipate a steep rise in bookings from those desperate to be reunited with loved ones when travel is possible.”
Airlines UK chief executive Tim Alderslade said: “This does not represent a reopening of travel as promised by ministers, and 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.
“It is also a further setback for an industry on its knees and the UK’s wider economic recovery, with many businesses and exporters reliant upon our domestic and international connectivity and a thriving aviation sector.
“All the evidence suggests you can reopen travel safely and in a risk-based manner with more proportionate measures, and we urge government to work with industry on a faster, cheaper and less complex solution”.
Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee said: “Despite the success of the UK’s vaccination rollout, the Global Travel Taskforce’s framework offers only a glimmer of hope to an industry battered by more than a year of near-complete shutdown.
“While it is welcome that the new green category does not require quarantine, it is not yet a truly green light to travel. The proposed testing regime will add significant costs that could limit travel possibilities for many and must be regularly reviewed.
“It is disappointing the government has not fully accepted the evidence that rapid, more affordable testing can be equally effective.”
And Dee warned: “As it stands, a meaningful restart of aviation is not yet possible under the new system. This puts the government’s Global Britain agenda and more than a million jobs supported by aviation and tourism at risk and will require the chancellor to mitigate the resulting financial impacts.”
Latin American Travel Association (Lata) chief executive Danny Callaghan, said: “I do have concerns around the planned continued use of PCR testing and hotel quarantine as expensive barriers to travel and I would like to see the checkpoint reviews consider not only the four stated tests, but to assess the use of PCR testing, home quarantine and hotel quarantine.”
He added: “There should be absolute transparency around the effectiveness of these measures, and I would like to see the government publish data on the results of hotel quarantine and mandatory testing so that the travel industry can understand whether these are actually necessary measures or an expensive and overcautious approach that does nothing to improve the UK’s resilience to Covid.”
Dnata Travel Group chief executive John Bevan said: “The current high cost of PCR tests, and the requirement for even vaccinated travellers returning from ‘green’ countries to take them, will simply be a barrier to travel for many families and put a well-deserved summer break beyond their reach.
“The government must now make good on its commitment to work with our industry and test providers to bring down the cost of such tests, and make them at least as affordable as they are in other countries.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kay said: “Why, if you’re fully vaccinated and you’re coming back from a green list country where there are no variants of concern, and have taken a test before you got on the plane, should you then have to take a PCR test costing £150pp? It’s overkill.”
Dale Keller, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK, said: “The government’s framework to re-open international travel provides the initial go-ahead needed by airlines to prepare for a return of international flying.
“Clearly we would like the government to sharpen their pencils on the plan in advance of implementation but the framework creates the building blocks to open up further through the built-in review periods.
“The real work starts now on ensuring the plans can be implemented effectively and on-time, thereby ensuring the travelling public have full confidence in the future travel experience, know when and where they can travel to, and understand what they are required to do.
“We support the ‘traffic light’ classification of countries based on risk assessments and we will continue to propose further initiatives and enhancements, such as acceptance of rapid lateral flow tests, to further reduce cost and complexity for travellers from lower risk countries.
“We also support the creation of a joint industry and government border working group to focus on enabling passenger volumes to return without excessive queues whilst maintaining a safe and secure UK border.”
Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “This is an important step towards resuming international travel. The report correctly identifies some of the key barriers facing travellers, but it falls short in providing solutions.
“Holidaymakers will still face the eye-watering costs of Covid tests, which are currently much more expensive in the UK than in many other European countries, and risk pricing people out of taking a holiday.
Amex GBT chief commercial officer Andrew Crawley said: “After nearly two months of work, it is disappointing that the Global Travel Taskforce report fails to set out a clear roadmap for reopening international travel and lacks fundamental detail.
“The UK’s proven success at rolling out a national vaccination programme at pace and scale should have enabled the government to give the needed reassurances to restart international travel.
“A continued absence of detail is detrimental to our economic recovery and the millions of jobs supported by the travel industry. With vaccination programmes continuing apace around the world, we need the government to turn its attention to the economic health of the UK.
“The report’s endorsement of a seamless digital travel certification system that is mutually recognised by countries around the world is welcome but intergovernmental cooperation must be escalated and the UK should seize the opportunity to use the G7 Summit to finalise and agree a framework.
“We are at a pivotal moment and need a greater sense of urgency from government to get trade and travel safely moving again.
“Opening up the UK-US travel corridor seems an obvious area to start.”
Abby Penston, chief executive of business travel consortium Focus Travel Partnership, said: “Any loosening of restrictions will provide oxygen to recovery for business travel. Whilst the sector has continued to service the needs of key workers and essential travellers throughout the pandemic, every-day business travel has operated at a fraction of 2019 rates and the continued lack of clarity on dates and countries for non-essential travel will put the breaks on a full return.”
ETOA chief executive Tom Jenkins said: “On one level it is great that the government is adopting ideas from Europe. Ireland adopted a similar traffic light system last year, and it has the virtue of being reasonably clear.
“There is a blithe assumption that the test fees are small. If you are an individual popping off to Tuscany for a wedding, £100 sounds little more than a dinner. For a family, this is a devastating imposition.
“We have to start looking at the situation from the point of view of our customers. No-one is clear if they are going to be allowed to come to Britain.
“The economy will struggle to restart in any meaningful way without foreign visitors, who pump over £30 billion a year into the service economy. Shops, attractions, hotels and attractions are reliant on this business and still have no idea when it will start.
“Clarity and consistency is needed, and there are still bizarre decisions being made in the hospitality sector. Why go out of your way to extend grants to strip clubs and hostess bars, but not tour operators? Why offer restart money to discotheques, shisha bars and waterpipe consumption venues but specifically exclude coach tour operators?”
Bristol airport chief executive Dave Lees said: “We welcome the initial report from the Global Travel Taskforce looking at the restart of international travel from May 17 onwards and introducing the tiered structure of red, amber and green and a ‘green watchlist’ of countries.
“However, customers and the travel industry urgently requires clarity on the next steps needed to resume air travel and particularly the need for customers to have a cheaper and more affordable and customer friendly testing process being in place.
“From our customer research we know there is pent-up customer demand for air travel with 86% (9,800 responses) of customers wanting to travel within the next 12 months.
“The government needs to safely unlock the travel industry ahead of the summer season.
“Bristol airport is committed to work with Government on all measures necessary to reopen international travel to support customers, colleagues and assisting the region’s economic recovery and protecting jobs now and in the future from the impact of this devasting pandemic.”
Nicholas Cooper, commercial partnerships, UK and North America for travel deals firm HolidayPirates said: “While it is frustrating for travellers and the travel industry that we still don’t have clarity on exactly when international leisure travel will open up, today’s framework announcement gives us renewed hope for international holidays this summer – which will likely be dominated by late bookings.
“The continued uncertainty ahead of more concrete news does present an opportunity for bargain hunters prepared to be flexible and fleet-of-foot as travel companies continue to offer strong deals while demand remains temporarily low.
“In the meantime, we continue to see staycations performing well for the summer holidays.
“Compared to 2019, where domestic travel represented 20%, it now represents 40% of our business. In addition, today’s news show positive and encouraging signs for overseas travel later this year.”
The British Airline Pilots Association warned that not enough people will want to travel this summer to help the industry recover.
General secretary Brian Strutton said: “This plan will keep the aviation industry on its knees. Ministers have said that the best form of support would be to get Britain flying again this summer. Today’s announcement simply won’t do that.
“The British public – more than half of whom have now received a vaccine – will not feel confident to book holidays without knowing whether they’ll be forced into quarantine on their return.
“And even for countries on the ‘green’ list travellers will need to take a PCR test at £100 per person, which is not sustainable.
“It is clear that under this plan airlines are not going to be able to recover during this summer season and will have to wait for summer 2022 for significant leisure travel to resume.
“Given that, I will be writing to the chancellor today to once again make the case for significant economic support.
“Air travel is too important to the economy and to the hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods rely on it to be left to whither.”
Union Unite warned the cost of Covid testing and it’s impact on demand, plus a lack of sector-specific support for the industry, may mean travel firms have to lose staff.
Assistant general secretary Diana Holland said: “We recognise that strict testing measures need to be in place for travel in and out of the country to protect people’s health and rebuild confidence. However, the plans in their current form need improving and to be delivered alongside a wider package of aviation industry support.
“The bill for testing each traveller will run into hundreds of pounds extra on top of the cost of a holiday for families wanting to travel this summer. Households on lower incomes will basically be Covid-taxed out of a much-needed break. This would not only be unfair but harmful for a travel industry desperately in need of recovery.
She explained how support for travel companies in the UK was less than in European countries. “To put things into perspective, the UK has lost an estimated 5,164 aviation-related jobs every month since February 2020, more than twice as many as France and Germany’s sectors during the same period,” said Holland.
“The French and German governments acknowledged that air travel was going to be hit especially hard by restrictions necessary to contain the pandemic and gave more than twice the financial support for every aviation job than the UK.
“UK ministers have paid lip service to providing aviation support but left the sector’s workers to pay a disproportionate price. The government must now provide an urgent package of support to ensure the aviation sector, which is crucial to the UK’s economic recovery, is able to take off again.”
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