Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has insisted foreign holidays will be able to resume “safely and sustainably” under new Government plans.
But travel firms have slammed measures to force holidaymakers returning from low-risk destinations to take an “expensive and unnecessary” type of coronavirus test.
Mr Shapps announced a “framework” for resuming overseas leisure travel which includes requiring all arrivals to take pre-departure and post-arrival coronavirus tests.
Post-arrival tests must be the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) type which cost around £120, he revealed.
This is despite pleas from the travel sector to allow travellers returning from countries on the “green” list under the new risk-based traffic light system to take lateral flow tests, which are cheaper and quicker.
Mr Shapps said: “The framework announced today will help allow us to reopen travel safely and sustainably, ensure we protect our hard-won achievements on the vaccine rollout and offer peace of mind to both passengers and industry as we begin to take trips abroad once again.”
The announcement came three days after Boris Johnson pledged to make testing requirements “as affordable as possible”.
EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren claimed the plan was “a blow to all travellers” and risked “making flying only for the wealthy”.
He added: “As the rest of British society and the economy opens up, it makes no sense to treat travel, particularly to low-risk countries, differently.”
Mark Tanzer, boss of travel trade organisation Abta, said permitting the use of lateral flow tests would “make international travel more accessible and affordable whilst still providing an effective mitigation against reimportation of the virus”.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the industry body representing UK-registered carriers, said the announcement “does not represent a reopening of travel as promised by ministers”.
The Department for Transport (DfT) said the Government will work with the travel industry and private testing providers to reduce the cost of foreign trips, which could potentially involve free pre-departure tests and cheaper tests for when holidaymakers return.
It refused to confirm whether foreign holidays will be permitted from May 17, which is the earliest date under the Prime Minister’s road map for easing coronavirus restrictions in England.
The DfT also insisted it was “too early to predict which countries will be on which list” under the traffic light system, with an “initial assessment” to be produced “by early may”.
People arriving from a “green” country will not be required to self-isolate, but those entering the UK from an “amber” destination must quarantine for 10 days,
Existing rules for arrivals from “red” locations will continue, including the requirement to pay to enter a quarantine hotel.
These restrictions will be “formally reviewed” on June 28 to take account of “the domestic and international health picture and to see whether current measures could be rolled back”, the DfT added.
Further reviews will take place no later than July 31 and October 1.
A “Green Watchlist” will be introduced to identify countries most at risk of moving from “green” to “amber”.
For Labour, shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said “proper details and clarity about strategy are vital” – including on the criteria by which the traffic light system will be decided.
The Government announced plans to digitise the Passenger Locator Form to enable checks to take place at e-gates by autumn 2021.
It also revealed the Civil Aviation Authority will be given additional enforcement powers to act on airlines that breach consumer rights, after many passengers struggled to obtain refunds when flights were grounded.
Elsewhere, the Government will launch a major campaign encouraging people to undergo twice-weekly Covid-19 testing in England.
The lateral flow tests – which can provide results in around 30 minutes – will be available from Friday, regardless of whether people have symptoms.
Prof Stephen Reicher, from the University of St Andrews, who is a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B), which advises ministers, said more financial support was needed for people to self-isolate otherwise huge sums of public money on lateral flow tests risks being wasted.
He told Sky News the main reason for offering the public two lateral flow tests per week was to get them to self-isolate if infected, adding: “The problem is that, at the moment, we’re concentrating on that one piece of the system without thinking about the other parts.
“And the consequence is not only that people don’t self isolate…it also suggests that because people can’t afford to self-isolate, they don’t get tested in the first place. That was very clear last year when mass testing was done in Liverpool, where in deprived parts of the city only half as many people came forward for testing as in more affluent places.”
Prof Reicher said that, for some people, self-isolating was impractical or they lose pay and “the way out of that is just simply to avoid a test.”
The solution was “something that has been suggested for months now. actually probably since the beginning of the pandemic a year ago, which is that we need to give more support to self-isolation,” he added.
“To test people without thinking about what you’re going to do with those tests, making those things possible, is wasting a huge amount of money – we’re spending £37 billion on testing. It makes neither public health sense, nor economic sense, to waste that money for want of spending on giving people the support they need to self-isolate.”
In Wales, two households will be able to meet indoors a week earlier than previously planned – as the Welsh Government moves to accelerate parts of its programme for the easing of coronavirus restrictions.
Under the changes to the timetable, organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people will be able to tale place from April 26 instead of May 3.
Wedding receptions for up to 30 people will also be permitted outdoors from April 26 – again a week earlier than previously announced.
The reopening of gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities will now be allowed from May 3, brought forward a week from May 10.
New analysis based on Public Health England figures has also suggested the Covid-19 vaccination programme has prevented the deaths of some 10,400 older people in England since it began.
The latest figures released by the Government on Thursday showed a further 53 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK total by that measure to 126,980.