Boris Johnson has pledged to make new testing requirements for returning holidaymakers “as affordable as possible” amid concerns that many people will be priced out of foreign travel.
The Government announced plans for a new system on Monday that would require travellers arriving in the UK from low-risk countries to take pre-departure and post-arrival coronavirus tests.
Aviation leaders such as easyJet boss Johan Lundgren have suggested this would be unnecessary, but called for lateral flow tests to be accepted – rather than more expensive alternatives – if the policy is implemented.
Mr Johnson told reporters: “I do think we want to make things as easy as we possibly can.
“The boss of easyJet is right to focus on this issue. We’re going to see what we can do to make things as flexible and as affordable as possible.”
A Downing Street paper published on Monday stated that it is not known whether foreign leisure travel will be permitted from May 17, which is the earliest date it could resume for people in England under the Prime Minister’s road map for easing restrictions.
Mr Johnson said: “I do want to see international travel start up again. We have to be realistic. A lot of the destinations that we want to go to at the moment are suffering a new wave of the illness, of Covid, as we know.
“We can’t do it immediately, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve given up on May 17.
“We will be saying as much as we can, as soon as we can, about international travel.
“I know how impatient people are to book their holidays if they possibly can but I think we just have to be prudent at this stage.”
Under the traffic light system, countries will be rated “green”, “amber” and “red” based on a range of factors, including the proportion of their population which has been vaccinated, rates of infection, emerging new variants and their access to reliable scientific data and genomic sequencing.
Mr Lundgren told BBC Breakfast mandatory tests for people returning from “green” countries “should not be needed”.
He said: “I don’t think that is fair, I don’t think it’s right, and I don’t think it is necessarily established from a medical and scientific point of view that is the right thing to do.
“If they choose, however, to go down that route to have the tests in place, it should be the same type of testing, the lateral flow testing, which is much cheaper, more accessible, that is being used to open up the domestic sector as an example.”
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are swab tests that are processed in a laboratory, and cost around £120 each in the UK for private customers.
This is “way over and above what the cost is of an average easyJet fare”, Mr Lundgren explained.
Requiring passengers to pay for PCR tests “wouldn’t open up international travel for everyone”, he said.
Rapid tests, or lateral flow device tests, are swab tests that give results in 30 minutes or less, without the need for processing in a laboratory.
Everyone in England will have free access to those tests twice a week from Friday.
Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss told reporters that people should be able to return from “green” countries without the need for tests “when it is safe to do so”.
He added: “We can’t have a prohibitively expensive testing system that puts businesses, people and families off travelling.
“Passengers travelling to and from ‘green’ countries should be able to do so freely, without testing or quarantine at all, and vaccinated passengers travelling to and from ‘amber’ countries should not face testing or quarantine.”
Mr Weiss said destinations that should be on the “green” list from May 17 include the US, Israel and the Caribbean.
The US is “vaccinating over three million people per day”, Israel is “the world’s leading vaccinated country”, and the Caribbean “has done an awesome job throughout this pandemic of keeping things under control”, he explained at a joint press conference with Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye and British Airways boss Sean Doyle.
Mr Holland-Kaye said the United Arab Emirates could be included as “they also have very high levels of vaccination”.
He went on: “There are plenty of long-haul countries which have low Covid levels, and many of them have high vaccination levels also.”
Mr Doyle cited recent research by consultancy York Aviation which suggested that a “lost summer of international travel” would cost the UK economy £55.7 billion in a decrease in trade and £3 billion in a cut in tourism.
Travel to and from the US is “vitally important for all of us here in the UK”, he said, adding: “No air link to the US until September will cost the UK an additional £2.4 billion. That’s £23 million per day.
“A tremendous lost opportunity if we don’t act now and quickly.”