By Estelle Shirbon and Sarah Young
LONDON, Apr 9 (Reuters) – Airlines have criticized the UK’s plans to resume international travel, stating that expensive diagnostic testing requirements for travel to low-risk COVID-19 countries would mean that only wealthy people could enjoy vacations abroad.
Under British government proposals, airlines and passengers will not know until early May if international travel will resume from May 17, a plan that does not meet the industry’s hopes for clarity.
Airlines and travel companies are eager for an exceptional summer to take place after a year of restrictions. Without a high level of unrestricted travel, some could be hard-pressed to survive or need new funding.
The British Government has proposed a “traffic light” system in which countries are classified as red, amber or green based on risks from COVID-19. Green countries will require a PCR test that costs around £ 100 ($ 135) for travelers once they arrive in the UK.
“This does not represent a reopening of travel as ministers promised,” said Airlines UK, an industry body representing British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and others.
“It is a new setback for a sector that is on its knees.”
EasyJet, Britain’s largest airline by number of passengers, highlighted the requirement for PCR tests, which it says cost more than some of its airfares, and called on the government to reconsider its plan.
“You run the risk of backtracking and making flying only for the rich,” said easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren.
Brits have embraced the era of low-cost travel for the past 20 years and are among the biggest spenders in Europe. In 2019, more than six in ten Britons took vacations abroad.
Transportation Minister Grant Shapps said the government wanted to make travel tests cheaper and suggested that the PCR test could eventually be switched to a more affordable lateral flow test.
“As a government, we are committed to working to reduce costs and, over time, to review the type of test,” he told the BBC.
The framework for travel will be reviewed at the end of June, in July and again in October, according to the British government.
“I’m not telling people that they shouldn’t book a vacation now,” Shapps said. “This is the first time I have been able to say that in many months.”
The number of COVID-19 cases in the UK has fallen dramatically since the January peak, under strict lockdown where holidays have been banned, but one of the Government’s priorities is to prevent the success of its program of vaccination is ruined by the importation of resistant variants of the vaccine from abroad.
With the traffic light system, restrictions such as hotel quarantine, home quarantine, and mandatory COVID testing will be applied differently depending on the category of country a passenger comes from.
There will be a “green watch list” that will identify countries most at risk of going from green to amber, although the government said it would not hesitate to change a country’s category if data showed that the risk has increased.
A digital travel certification scheme would also be part of the plan, but the proposals offered few details other than indicating that the UK wants to play a leading role in standards development.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Sarah Young; additional reporting by Michael Holden edited by Diane Craft, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie, translated by Tomás Cobos)