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The government could be heading towards another row with backbenchers over foreign holidays as it was suggested today the cost of PCR tests for travelers should be capped.
Henry Smith, the Conservative chair of the Future of Aviation all-party parliamentary group, told PoliticsHome that considering the price for tests can be higher than a European short-haul flight, the government needs to act on what is turning into a “gold rush free for all”.
Scrapping VAT, or doing away with PCRs for green and amber list travellers and replacing them with cheaper lateral flow tests would be preferable than capping the testing market, Smith believes, but he said a maximum price should be considered.
“It’s not my natural instinct to price cap things but given that people don’t have a choice right now there is a strong argument to say there should be a maximum price,” said Smith, the MP for Crawley, which covers Gatwick Airport.
“But the key is not having to do PCR tests, only having them as a back-up. Just over one per cent of passengers in the last month from green and amber list countries tested positive for Covid, so for the vast majority of people a lateral flow is fine, and also provides public health protection and is a lot cheaper.
“There could be a lot more that the government could be doing to ease the burden because a family of four, perhaps separated from relatives for 18 months because of the pandemic, it makes [travel] prohibitive. It’s £500 for a family to afford tests under the current regime.”
Prices quoted today from the government’s list of more than 1,000 private providers for PCR tests were between £79.00 and £150.00 for a “fit to fly” PCR test for outbound travellers. The prices tend to be higher when testing kits are delivered and collected from someone’s home.
For those doing the mandatory PCR test on day two of their return from holiday from a green or amber list country prices were between £20 and £75. And for those needing a day eight test from an amber country, and who aren’t double vaccinated, prices were between £50 and £145.
In France the prices are capped at 54 euros for PCRs.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps told ITV today that there is a “competitive market place which has driven down the cost” and that the NHS should not be involved in testing people for holidays.
On the suggestion that PCR tests could be swapped for cheaper lateral flows, he said: “Finding the concerning variants is what we want to look for when people have travelled abroad. A lateral flow test doesn’t provide you with that information.”
Chair of the transport committee Huw Merriman, another Tory MP, has also hit out at the testing requirement, tweeting that passengers are being “ripped off” and they are a barrier to travel.
He questioned how much sequencing information is coming from PCRs, claiming Test and Trace data from the NHS shows that of all the tests that came back positive in the three weeks from July 1 only five percent were genome sequenced.
Merriman told Radio 4’s PM programme that he thinks people should take lateral flow tests. He said: “Over a three week period in July half a million people took the PCR test. Only 7000 tested positive for Covid but only five percent of those tests were sequenced.
“We ask people to pay this much higher amount so we can get sequenced and find variants of concern but only five percent were tested, so what is the point therefore in asking people to shell out?”
Mr Smith, who is going on holiday to Spain at the weekend said he paid £130 for testing, claiming: “It’s more than the flight.”
“When testing starts to rival the cost of actual flight tickets you know something’s amiss. Testing should be simplified to lateral flow rather than PCR, and some regulation around the slight gold rush free for all testing companies are engaged in at the moment probably is relevant.”
He said the next review of travel rules in two and a half weeks time would be a chance for ministers to rethink the PCR requirement.
A government source suggested ministers are not looking at changing the current pricing of tests and insist the market has driven costs down for holiday makers.
Labour has written to the transport secretary to ask if the NHS does have any spare capacity for PCR tests, and point to July 30 when capacity was 699,000 tests but only 366,000 were carried out.
For people planning on returning to the UK from a green list country, they need to take a PCR test while still abroad and have a negative result to fly, then take another test on the second day after they return.
For travellers returning from an amber list country, a PCR needs to be taken before departure, then on day two and day eight of isolation. Those fully vaccinated in the UK, the EU or USA, only need to take a test on day two.
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