The transport secretary has accepted that the price of Covid testing for travel is “too expensive” and would like to see it “driven down”.
Grant Shapps backed the Global Travel Taskforce’s requirement for “gold standard” PCR tests for those returning to the UK from green list destinations, saying it was proceeding with an “abundance of caution” as infection rates remain high and variant of concern remain prevalent elsewhere.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Shapps said: “This is the first time I’ve been able to come on and say I’m not advising people not to book this summer.”
But he said he had not yet booked his own holiday and was waiting “two or three weeks” until the countries on the three lists are published.
He reiterated “we need to wait until nearer the time” to publish the green, amber and red countries, stressing: “We can’t travel at all until May 17.”
But he said the new ‘Green Watchlist’, to be introduced to highlight countries at risk of moving from the low-risk green category to amber, “should be able to give a little bit of notice”.
Shapps said countries were being judged on four criteria: the infection rate, vaccination rate, prevalence of variants of concern, and the quality of their testing and genomic sequencing.
Pushed on the cost of testing, Shapps said PCR tests were better at identifying variants of concern but said he would like to see the cost, which can range from £65 to £200, “driven down”. However he said use of only PCR tests would be kept “under review”.
“It’s important we proceed with utmost caution,” he told the BBC, adding: “Like you I’m concerned about the cost of these. We would like to see the cost driven down. I’m going to work with the private sector to see whether this can’t be driven down quite a lot further.
“I think they are too expensive and it may be that there needs to be more entrants in the market – and we’ll be taking a very close look at that.”
Shapps said the current cost of PCR testing “seems very surprising” and said he had expected some of the more expensive options to “be half the price they are by now”.
“Overall the pricing should be lower,” he stressed. “I’m looking at what’s happening in other countries and I do notice there is a very big variation.”
He added: “I wish there wasn’t any cost at all [but] we’re in this position because we’ve got this global pandemic – and it’s easy to forget that it’s still raging in other parts of the world. We do have to take every possible precaution.”
Shapps would not say what price he thought it should reduce to. “We are going to have to see what it can be driven down to. There are additional costs involved because of coronavirus and people will make their decision whether to go abroad off the back of that.”
He also said the government is “looking at whether people can take their own tests with them” and pointed out that lateral flow tests – of which anyone can now get two per week for free – are being used for the pre-departure tests, in what he dubbed a “bring your own model”.
Shapps said “I would love it if we can get to the point of using a lateral flow test when people get home, or no test at all.” But he stressed the government would proceed with an “abundance of caution. We don’t want people bringing home variants of concern.”
He said he was concerned about families travelling to visit relatives “more than holidaymakers”, noting ONS stats that say 34% of children have at least one parent born overseas.
“We want to make sure people can rejoin their families,” said Shapps. “I think that’s possibly even more pressing than the holidays issue.”
Shapps finished his BBC Breakfast interview by saying the government’s messaging on booking holidays has been relaxed, accepting that he and other ministers have been saying “don’t book a holiday, it’s illegal to go away”.
He said: “This is probably the first time I’ve been able to come on and say I’m not advising people not to book to go away this summer.”
However, he said he hasn’t yet booked himself and is “going to wait two or three weeks” until the traffic light lists are published.
Shapps insisted “people can take more informed choices” based on the “guidance” of the traffic lights, but urged them to check cancellation and amendment policies.
He also praised travel companies, and specifically airlines, for their changes to refunds and amendments which he said “have improved a lot since last year”.