Grant Shapps is facing a backlash over mandatory PCR tests for children as young as five as part of plans to scrap quarantine for fully vaccinated holidaymakers visiting amber countries from July 19.
Parents and academics claimed it was unnecessary and potentially harmful to test such young children, while tourism chiefs warned the extra costs for holidays could price many families out of foreign travel.
The Transport Secretary announced that all children aged five to 18 will have to undergo PCR tests when they return from amber countries with their parents or individually. Only those aged four or under will not have to be tested.
The tests are required as part of the Government’s new travel regime for double-jabbed adults and all children to be able to travel to amber countries from July 19 without having to quarantine on their return to the UK.
Children aged over 11 and all vaccinated adults will have to take pre-departure tests and a PCR test on or before day two after their arrival back in the UK.
Those aged five to 11 have to take just the PCR test on arrival. For a family of four, it could add £400 to the cost of a holiday.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, announced that all children aged five to 18 will have to undergo PCR tests when they return from amber countries
Most other countries in Europe exempt children aged under 12 but Mr Shapps said the PCR tests were necessary to enable the Government to track and prevent variants being imported through genome sequencing the samples.
Molly Kingsley, co-founder of Us for Them, a parents’ campaign group, said Britain had never tested healthy adults “let alone five-year-olds for asymptomatic illnesses”.
“It is very unclear why we would be doing this now at a time when we know the vaccines have broken the link between infections and hospitalisations,” she said.
“Many parents would feel uneasy about normalising testing for children as young as this. It sends a very negative message to our children that they are disease vectors.
“Any holiday with a family is expensive enough as it is. I would not put a five or eight year old through this to go away.”
Travel countries on the red, green and amber list
Prof Allyson Pollock, director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science, said that with the link between infection, hospitalisation and deaths “hugely weakened”, testing children was illogical.
“We really should be asking: what is the prevalence of infection and how good is the natural immunity in the country they are returning to? What evidence is there that these tests will reduce transmission?” she said.
“I don’t understand the logic of it or what has informed it. Where are the evaluations and science to support this. They are making it up as they go along. This is the mess you get into when you introduce vaccine passports and Covid tests.
“You either make a decision that you don’t want people to travel to countries with high prevalence or coming back into them, or you simply say we have got pretty good immunity established in the country.”
The aviation industry welcomed the opening of amber countries to vaccinated Britons as a “step in the right direction,” but urged the Government to ditch PCR tests for the fully jabbed.
Flying risks becoming ‘preserve of the rich’
Johan Lundgren, chief executive of easyJet, said it risked a return to flying being a “preserve of the rich.” He added: “Expensive testing could sadly make travel out of reach for some this summer.”
The double-vaccination quarantine-free travel scheme will initially only apply to people who have had their vaccination through the NHS, allowing them to travel with either proof of their jab through the NHS app or a paper certificate. Foreign tourists will join it “later in the summer”, said Mr Shapps.
Sean Doyle, chief executive and chairman of British Airways, said the Government needed to “quickly extend this to all vaccinated travellers, agree a reciprocal deal with the US, add more countries to the ‘green’ list and reduce the need for unnecessary, expensive tests.”
Analysis by consumer group Which for amber Greece, Spain, France and Portugal found that for an adult holidaymaker, it would cost £39 for a rapid antigen pre-departure test followed by £55 for a PCR test, the average cost though they can range up to more than £200.
This would mean on average around £400 for a family of two fully vaccinated adults with two teenage children just for the test costs to return to the UK. Some countries require pre-departure tests which would mean extra charges outbound for prospective holidaymakers.
Mr Shapps also warned holidaymakers to be prepared for delays and queues at airline check-ins on return and potentially at the border both in airports and ports because of the extra checks that will be required for travel.
Four-hour queues at Heathrow
Lucy Moreton, of the ISU union representing Border Force officers, predicted queues of between three and four hours at peak times at Heathrow, as the Home Office was still insisting on 100 per cent checks of all incoming passengers.
E-gates will be operational at the UK’s major airports by the end of July, speeding up checks, and airlines were told yesterday by Mr Shapps they would be “required” to check passengers’ vaccination and test certificates before boarding planes back to the UK to reduce delays on arrival in the UK.
In the Commons, Theresa May, the former Prime Minister, urged Mr Shapps to ensure there were extra staff at the borders, potentially drafted from other Government departments, and revamped rotas to minimise the risk of “inordinately lengthy delays.”
The scale of any problems will depend on demand and yesterday airlines reported a surge in interest after Mr Shapps’ announcement.
EasyJet said flight bookings from the UK to amber list destinations had surged 400 per cent on last week with Alicante, Malaga, Faro, Nice and Corfu among top choices. The airline has put on a further 145,000 seats and more holidays as a result.
British Airways reported a 96 per cent increase in the number of views on its website within a couple of hours of Mr Shapps’ announcement with Barbados, Palma, Ibiza, New York, Antigua, Malta and Malaga the top destinations.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the Airlines UK industry body, welcomed the announcement as a "positive move towards the genuine reopening" for the ailing sector. "The summer season essentially starts here," he added.