The transport secretary says he will continue to “look at” whether lateral flow tests can be used in place of PCR tests to allow international travel – but insists the latter will be in place for now.
Speaking on a webinar hosted by Airlines UK and Conservative Home, Grant Shapps reiterated he wants to “drive down” the price of Covid testing for international travel.
And while he said the requirement for PCR tests would remain for now, he confirmed he was still “looking at” a switch to lateral flow testing – currently being offered to every UK citizen up to twice a week for free – as a means for opening up travel, and which he compared to a “Covid version of bring your own bottle when you go on holiday”.
Travel could begin from as soon as May 17, but the Global Travel Taskforce has set review dates for June 28, and in July and October.
The session heard from testing expert George Batchelor, director of Edge Health, who said Covid has “turned from a societal threat to a risk that can be managed and mitigated” and noted “huge advances in testing” alongside “hugely successful vaccination campaigns” in the UK and US.
Batchelor said PCR tests are still considered the “gold standard” of testing for Covid, but said lateral flow antigen testing has “moved on in the last year”, and is now “as effective as PCR”.
He added that rapid testing was “as effective as blanket 10-day quarantine” when the number of people who do not abide by quarantine rules is taken into account.
Shapps said he understood industry arguments that quicker and cheaper tests were becoming more effective, but said the taskforce would continue to insist on PCR tests for now.
“For the time being the truth is the PCR tests get us somewhere closer to the truth of whether somebody’s got coronavirus,” he said.
But he insisted: “I want to see the prices driven down.”
Shapps noted that the cheapest PCR test offered by a government-approved provider was now £58, and that one provider was “going through the process” of making PCR tests available for £45.
He pointed out that the “higher costs” offered by government-approved providers – sometimes as much as £200 – were for a “full service, where people come to your home and carry out the test”.
“We are exploring all different ways to drive that cost down,” he added.
Echoing comments made by aviation minister Robert Courts at the transport select committee last week, Shapps said “this is not something that will be set in stone for ever.” – and pointed to the review dates at the end of June, end of July and October.
David Evans, joint chief executive of airport services provider Collinson, which is behind a testing site at Heathrow, said another important area key to reducing cost was VAT – not just on the cost of the test but on other supply chain costs such as lab costs and PPE costs.
He suggested that having testing laboratories on site at airports would be cheaper than sending tests to existing labs – comparing the difference to that of “buying your beer at Tesco or down the pub”.
“There’s also a difference between doing a self-administered test and having one done by a medical practitioner,” he noted. “Some people may argue that an antigen test carried out by a medical practitioner is more accurate than a PCR test that is self-administered. You have to look at that real-world criteria.”
He said Collinson looked at the effectiveness of a single test in previous studies with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic and said “we are seeing a trend that is showing that even a single test captures a vast majority of those people [who test positive].”
Collinson has also captured data on the compliance of people carrying out both tests, he added – saying: “It’s difficult always to track but we are seeing a drop-off between day two and day eight.
“So it you’re looking at an amber package, one way to reduce [the cost of testing for travel] is to look at a single test package,” he suggested.
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