Costly PCR tests for double-jabbed travellers returning to Britain expected to be scrapped

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The overhaul of the travel and testing rules is being pushed forward ahead of the autumn half term - Reuters/Peter Nicholls
The overhaul of the travel and testing rules is being pushed forward ahead of the autumn half term - Reuters/Peter Nicholls

Rip-off Covid tests for returning travellers are set to be scrapped for the double-jabbed in a boost to holiday plans for the autumn half term.

On Friday, Boris Johnson is also expected to replace the traffic light system for travel and reduce the number of countries on the red list.

However, the rules could get a little tighter for the unvaccinated, who may have to quarantine for 10 days whichever country they return from, increasing the incentives to get jabbed.

The overhaul follows six months of fierce criticism over the cost of PCR tests and the complexity of the travel system, which has seen different rules for different groups of nations.

It will complete a week of changes to the Government’s Covid approach for the autumn and winter, with a new vaccination drive and approach to Covid restrictions announced.

The exact details of the new travel system remain fluid, with government sources stressing that the package will be finalised only after crunch meetings on Friday.

The Telegraph understands there is already a backlash emerging from the SNP-led Scottish Government, which could pick different rules, and some government scientific advisers.

However, Downing Street is confident that the core elements of Mr Johnson’s travel rules shake-up will be implemented.

A senior government source said: “This is about making it easier to travel abroad to see friends and family again, while maintaining protections to keep us safe.”

Watch: Travel - George Eustice notes importance of PCR tests

Changes in time for autumn half term

It is hoped within the Government that the reforms can be put in place in time for the autumn half term, which begins on October 25 for many schools.

One core change expected to be signed off on Friday concerns Covid testing when returning from overseas holidays.

Currently, people who are double-jabbed have to take a PCR test on their second day back in the UK. That requirement is expected to change to just a lateral flow test, which is much cheaper than PCR tests that can cost more than £100.

In addition, people who have been double-jabbed have to take a lateral flow test before they get on a flight home from overseas.

The need for that test could be stopped altogether for the fully vaccinated, though government sources insist that is not yet locked down.

However, the above applies only to people who have had two doses of their Covid vaccine. Rules for people not fully vaccinated will remain tighter.

It is expected the unvaccinated will still have to take a Covid test before boarding a flight home, a PCR test on day two after returning and at least a lateral flow test on day eight. They must also quarantine for 10 days.

Under all the new rules, it is expected that only lateral flow tests paid for by travellers can be used, rather than the free ones given by the Government, so some costs continue.

A second big area of reforms coming is the end of the traffic lights system. Countries will no longer be divided into green, amber and red lists, or any sub-categories between them.

Instead, there will simply be two groupings: all countries that the Government is happy for people to travel to, and a separate red list of countries that pose a Covid risk.

That red list will be much shorter than the current one, according to government sources, with possibly dozens of countries, including Turkey, to be taken off.

This new simplification actually means that the unvaccinated face slightly tougher Covid rules, as they will now have to quarantine from nations that were on the green list.

Mandated hotel quarantine for people returning from red list countries, which means forced stays for 10 days in hotels selected by the Government, will remain.

The Telegraph understands that the Scottish Government could keep PCR tests for the jabbed on day two, splitting with Mr Johnson’s new rules for England.

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PCR tests proving unpopular

One source also claimed that figures in Public Health England were pushing back on the removal of PCR tests on return, given such test results are logged more efficiently than those from lateral flows.

Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, urged the Government to press ahead with scrapping PCR testing.

“The economic costs of not reopening are increasing every day and this is the last opportunity to change the travel rules under the Government’s own Taskforce timeframe,” he said.

“They are removing furlough support for a sector that hasn’t been allowed to reopen. We either take this opportunity to pare back these restrictions or thousands of jobs will be at stake and our competitiveness as a trading nation will be further eroded.”

Henry Smith, the chairman of the All-Party Future of Aviation group, welcomed the plans for double-jabbed, but said: “A decision needs to be made without any further delay because that is what the industry requires.

“It is draconian for the unvaccinated, but I can see where the Government is coming from, that if you want to travel internationally, getting vaccinated is the best thing to do. It doesn’t prevent people from travelling.”

Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Select Committee, saidL "With furlough coming to an end later this month, and over 80 per cent of the country fully vaccinated, the time is right to replace expensive PCR testing with Lateral Flow testing.

"We hear the arguments that only a PCR test can sequence for variants of concern but let’s be driven by the NHS Test and Trace data. This showed that, in a three week period in July, over 500,000 people came through arrivals and just under 7,000 of these tested positive; yet just five per cent of those positive cases got sequenced. 

"This makes the exercise an expensive sham. If we don’t start lifting travel demand to the levels enjoyed by mainland Europe, thousand more people will lose their jobs and even more will be unable to afford to visit countries with lower COVID rates than our own. We need a firm date and not just a commitment to further kick the can down the runway."

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