The campaign to drop tests for travel is gathering momentum, with an ex Prime Minister, epidemiologists and even the testing firms themselves lobbying the Government to scrap the day two test.
The sentiment towards testing in travel has done something of a U-turn. If you cast your mind back to 2020, the idea of testing international air passengers was widely supported – including by Telegraph Travel in our Test4Travel campaign. It was a solution, albeit an expensive and rather unappealing one, to kick-start international travel at a time when planes were grounded and the vaccine rollout had not yet begun.
However, more than two years into the pandemic and after the emergence of new variants, which have proven perfectly adept at side-stepping international travel restrictions, there is a growing consensus that now is the time to drop tests for travel entirely.
Stefan Baral, Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at John Hopkins School of Public Health, says using testing in international travel to detect cases “is absolutely critical in the early stages” of a pandemic. But the point of testing soon fades, he argues. “Once there is sufficient local transmission, the role of travel-based introductions becomes less relevant while still using huge amounts of resources.”
Throughout the pandemic, international travel has been used as a first line of defence against new variants. Keen to buy time for the vaccine rollout to progress, and perhaps similarly keen to appear to be “doing something” after a new variant is discovered, governments have moved fast to close borders and tighten testing restrictions after the outbreaks of alpha, delta and omicron.
However, David Livermore, Professor of Medical Microbiology at UEA, points out that testing in international travel has been wholly ineffective in curbing the spread of a new variant. He says: “Omicron has spread worldwide, except in the strict quarantine zero-Covid holdouts of the Far East, despite travel protocols and testing. Delta did the same previously. Given this repeated failure, it's time to scrap universal testing of travellers.”
These words tally with the conclusions from a new analysis commissioned by the Manchester Airports Group (MAG) and Airlines UK, which shows how pre-departure, PCR testing and isolation – even for fully vaccinated arrivals – would have had almost no impact on the direction of the omicron wave.
Charlie Cornish, the MAG chief executive, said: "The findings show conclusively that testing for international travel will not deliver significant benefits in managing the spread of new variants.
"As we learn to live with Covid-19, it is important that people are allowed to travel free of the additional cost and uncertainty which testing creates. This study provides ministers with the clear evidence that this is achievable.”
Interestingly, even the testing firms are campaigning for day two tests to be scrapped. Simon Worrell, global medical director of Collinson, which also runs airport lounges, told the BBC: "As soon as we can drop it, we will be delighted.
"Airport testing was only ever supposed to be a band-aid, a temporary solution to get trade and tourism staggering whilst we build up immunity and we are able to fight the virus by ourselves. We are at that point now.”
From a travel industry point of view, scrapping testing can’t come soon enough. The sector has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, affecting millions of jobs and entire economies reliant on inbound tourism. Paul Charles, CEO of the PC Agency, says it is time to revert to the pre-pandemic days of test-free travel.
“We need to get back to how travel was pre-Covid – with no testing whatsoever. Covid is now much less severe than it was and should be treated like flu. We never had to take tests to travel with flu, so we don’t need tests to travel with Covid, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated.”
However, Charles predicts it will be some time before the rest of the world gets on board with the notion of test-free travel.
“I think it will be another year before governments drop testing for everyone. Woe betide destinations which keep testing in place this summer – they will lose market share to other countries and lose the goodwill of travellers longer-term.”
In recent days, pressure to drop travel testing has come from within the Conservative party. Theresa May has voiced her opinions alongside Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, who said: “For nearly two years, very few of us have been able to travel abroad for pleasure, for business, or to reunite with friends and family.
“Those who have managed to get away have felt the anxiety caused by Byzantine testing rules and Covid paperwork, and felt the costs in our pockets, with rip-off private suppliers frequently charging hundreds of pounds for travel tests.”
The Government says testing for travel is currently under review, and an announcement could come as early as next week. It will certainly be a moment for celebration if the day two lateral flow test is dropped, particularly for families and regular international travellers who have been stung by the costs involved. For a family of four, the day two lateral flow test alone tots up to more than £120. Before Christmas, when a pre-departure test was also required to enter the UK, and the day two test was a more expensive PCR – not to mention testing requirements in other countries – swabbing to travel could rack up to multiple hundreds of pounds.
The UK dropping the day two test would also spell the return of entirely test-free travel to certain destinations in time for half term. There are 37 countries which currently welcome UK arrivals without a test – our holiday favourites of Spain, Croatia and Turkey among them.
International travel has seen significant change over the decades: the introduction of the passport in the early twentieth century, the tightening of airport security checks following the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001. It is likely that heightened sanitisation will become part of the post-pandemic travel experience, but let us hope that governments soon see the light. Constantly testing international travellers is not effective at stopping the spread of Covid-19. Let it go away, and never return.
To book, or not to book?
With the Government expected, but not guaranteed, to drop the day two test in the coming weeks, holidaymakers due to go away in the near future are left with a tricky dilemma: to book the day two test, or not to book?
While we await the news, it would be wise to delay booking your day two test until as late as possible. The cheapest firms will need a few working days to deliver your kit, so depending on the day of the week the latest point to sensibly book a day two test would be two or three days before travelling home. If you do book a day two test in the coming days or weeks, be sure to contact your testing provider to enquire about refund options – some companies (such as Expresstest) are offering full or partial refunds if the Government changes the rules.