The chair of the Transport Select Committee has pledged to “drill down” into why the cost of PCR testing in the UK is far higher compared to other countries.
Hosting a hearing on Wednesday (14 April) Huw Merriman, conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, said the cost of test components would need to be explored ahead of international travel restarting this summer.
“Why are they [PCR tests] more expensive in this county? Is it because of the country requirements or is it because the industry is charging too much?” he questioned.
The type of Covid testing that should be favoured by government – and the costs involved – were discussed during the committee session with tourism and aviation figures calling for cheaper and quicker methods.
Heathrow’s chief solutions officer, Chris Garton, said using PCR tests as a “blanket approach” for arrivals into the UK would “dissuade hardworking families from wanting to travel due to the sheer cost of testing”.
He suggested using cheaper lateral flow tests to look for infections and then followed if needed by a PCR should the traveller returned a positive test.
Asked by Labour MP Ben Bradshaw “how surprised and disappointed” he was that government policy under its Global Travel Taskforce report could lead to a “more restrictive” summer in 2021 than last year, Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer said he felt ministers were being “overcautious”.
Tanzer said the government’s approach did not recognise “the huge change that the vaccination programme has created”, adding the need to make travellers take PCR tests to return to the UK from countries considered "green" on the traffic light system was “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.
He argued such a move would “hobble the industry” and cause confusion from vaccinated travellers who would ask: “I’ve been vaccinated and nothing has changed?”
“I think you’d have a job to explain that to customers,” he said.
Iata’s UK & Ireland country manager, Simon McNamara, said it was “illogical” the UK government was not following a similar position to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with vaccinated travellers not having to quarantine on their return to America.
He said a “key missing element” from the taskforce report was how vaccinated customers are treated.
McNamara added the government’s Test To Release supplier website could be improved and suggested a case could be made for NHS testing capacity, which was now at an excess level, being used for travel.
“Even if it’s at cost, for example, it could be charged if that’s the model they want to go down,” he proposed. “The advantage is government can capture the data much quicker and also the levying of VAT on testing – so it’s an extra 20% on top – if it’s government-supplied then that problem doesn’t occur.”
McNamara said Iata had found PCR testing between 50-80% cheaper in other countries than it was in the UK.
“Something needs to happen about the cost of testing… there is a clear difference in the UK pricing model than other countries, that’s for sure.”
Garton added: “I can’t see anything in the UK that’s different in PCR testing that it is automatically more expensive here in the UK than any other country.”
Asked if the industry could help drive the price down, Garton said he believed it could be possible with more passengers travelling this summer.
“We’d want to see the lowest possible cost levied on travellers this summer when families will be looking to get a break which they weren’t able to last year – and the thing that will dissuade them is the test of costing.”
Tanzer said that reductions in cost were beneficial but warned it was “still a very significant cost” to consumer holiday budgets.
He also warned that the industry “doesn’t have the margins to be able to swallow [testing costs]” with consumers “paying one way or the other” whether it was built into the price of travel or paying for testing separately.
“We shouldn’t be misled and say it’s better to go down from £120 to £60 – the better solution is to not have a PCR test and allow people to use lateral flow.”