The UK’s aviation and maritime minister, Robert Courts, has pledged to address concerns over the cost of testing to travellers ahead of a resumption of international travel in the spring.
When travel finally resumes under the government’s recently announced traffic light system, all arrivals in England and Wales will have to test negative for Covid-19 prior to their return.
Those arriving from "green list" countries will have to take a "gold standard" PCR test on the second day of their return, which typically cost in excess of £100.
Arrivals from "amber" and "red list" countries will have to take an additional PCR test on the eighth day or their return, as well as self-isolate for 10 days.
The travel sector has been united in its opposition to the PCR on return test requirement, claiming it risks pricing travellers – especially families – out of leisure travel.
Many in travel have, instead, called for the PCR test requirement to be replaced by a cheaper lateral flow test, the kind of which is being used to reopen parts of the UK’s domestic economy, as well as in schools, and by hauliers arriving from Europe.
Appearing before the government’s transport committee on Wednesday (14 April), Courts was asked by Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw why the government was insisting on "massively expensive and slow" PCR tests for those returning to the country when lorry drivers were arriving from France every day on lateral flow tests.
Courts said the PCR test requirement was vital in keeping track of new Covid-19 variants of concern, but stressed the government would be looking to see what can be done to help with the cost.
"We are aware of the cost that goes along with that gold standard, and we will be looking at that over the course of the next few weeks," he said.
Chair of the committee, Huw Merriman, pressed Courts to make a commitment on reducing the test burden for arrivals.
"It seems absolutely ludicrous that 99% of the mortality risk in this country going abroad has to get an expensive PCR test, and yet hauliers coming in from countries where they haven’t got the vaccination programme in place get the lateral flow?" said Merriman.
"Surely you could review it and say, ’take the lateral flow and if that comes up positive, then a PCR’ because that goes to a lab. Will you commit to perhaps having a look at that again minister?"
Courts reiterated the importance of PCR testing and extolled the success of the UK’s genomic sequencing efforts, adding that the UK’s testing requirements would be subject to review at one of three checkpoints baked into the government’s framework for the resumption of international travel, which was published on Friday (9 April).
He did, however, admit the discrepancy in the approach taken with regards to hauliers when asked by Merriman whether he was concerned about Covid-19 variants of concern coming into the country this way. "The issue there is about the free flow of freight," he said.
Bradshaw, meanwhile, asked Courts why PCR testing was twice the price in the UK as the average £50-£60 such tests cost in Europe, and called on the government to cap the cost of these tests at a similar level.
Courts responded: "We’ll be seeing what we can do over the course of the next few weeks to help with the cost of tests. There is a number of different ways we can do that. We can look at both the possibility of government-provided tests for the pre-departure tests [prior to people’s return to the UK] and also the cost here."