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British holidaymakers could be given free NHS lateral flow devices before they travel abroad – to be used for testing before they return to the UK.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has described the plan as “a Covid version of bring your own bottle when you go on holiday”.
At present all overseas holidays are illegal. But the UK government hopes to introduce allow non-essential travel to begin on 17 May. When it begins, every returning traveller will need to take a Covid test before departure back to the UK, as well as at least one PCR test on arrival.
At a ConservativeHome aviation event, Mr Shapps said that British people going on holiday may be able to pack a free lateral flow device.
“We’re looking at things like whether people can take their tests away and therefore not incur additional costs to take that first test,” he said.
The transport secretary said it would reduce one of the barriers to travel.
“With the interest of the aviation sector in my heart as much as for the rest of the country, we’ve got to [open up travel] safely and we’ve got to do it once and for all,” he said.
“And if that errs on, ‘Look, you need a couple of tests and one of them is a lateral flow test and it’s free, then people are used to taking tests now. That’s not a great barrier.”
The tests used by the NHS involve swabbing the back of the throat and inside the nose. Results are clear within half-an-hour.
In England, the devices can be ordered free online or collected from a pharmacy.
The Welsh government says: “You can pick up self-test kits at certain testing sites.”
The Scottish government says: “Lateral flow home test kits will be available to anyone in the wider population who does not have Covid-19 symptoms.
“They can be picked up from local walk/drive-through test sites for people to test themselves twice-weekly.
On Tuesday, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said that people planning to travel from the mainland to the islands should take two lateral flow tests – one three days before departure and the other just before the journey.
Northern Ireland does not yet offer free tests for non-symptomatic people, except in some workplace settings.
Providing free testing devices for holidaymakers policy would reverse the long-held government view that travellers should pay for testing that facilitates international journeys.
It would also raise concerns about the scope for possible fraudulent activity. At present pre-departure tests must be taken at, and certified by, a registered medical practice.
With self-testing, there would be no obvious guarantee that it was a valid test conducted by the person travelling.
One suggestion is that only vaccinated travellers would be entitled to a free self-service test; others would need to find a testing centre before departure to the UK.
Post-arrival PCR tests will continue to be at the traveller’s expense – typically costing £60 each.