ABTA Urges UK Government to End Widespread Use of PCR Testing As Part of an Overhaul of Travel Requirements

New summer holiday bookings for 2021 down 83% on 2019 as 7 in 10 travel companies plan to make redundancies after furlough ends

ABTA – The Travel Association is calling for a significant overhaul of the Government’s traffic light system, including ending the widespread use of PCR testing, as new data reveal the devastating impact the UK’s travel requirements had on the UK’s overseas travel industry this summer.  
Data from ABTA Members1, released today, reveal:

  • New summer foreign holiday bookings for 2021 were down 83% on 2019. 
  • Almost half of travel companies also reported they have seen no increase in 2021 bookings compared to last year, despite the rollout of the vaccine programme. 
  • 58% of bookings with departure dates in July or August this year had to be postponed or cancelled.

With the Government due to review the requirements for international travel by 1 October and furlough to end this month, ABTA has written to the Transport Secretary and the Chancellor to share its latest evidence which demonstrates that the traffic light system has acted as brake on the sector and failed to deliver the conditions necessary for recovery. It has also outlined the changes needed from October’s review to get people travelling again and kickstart the industry’s recovery, as well as repeating calls for tailored financial support to recognise the unique challenges travel has faced and help businesses through the ongoing crisis.

With more than 80% of eligible UK adults already vaccinated2, ABTA says the time has now come to put in place a stable framework for international travel; capitalising on the success of the vaccine rollout by making the individual risk status of the traveller a cornerstone of future travel policy. ABTA says the Government should use the strategic review of travel requirements to:

  • End the traffic light system and instead treat all destinations as open by default. 
  • Retain a short red list only for the management of known variants of concern. 
  • End the widespread use of PCR testing by removing the need for fully vaccinated travellers to do any COVID-19 test on their return from lower-risk countries.

The new ABTA Member data also reveal the impact travel restrictions imposed by the UK Government and the devolved administrations has had on UK travel businesses with 69% of travel companies3 with staff on furlough expecting to make further redundancies once the scheme ends this month. This takes the estimated total of jobs lost to nearly 100,000 in the outbound travel sector, and more than 226,000 once supply chains are also considered4. As such, ABTA says it has never been more important for the Government to come forward with a package of tailored support for the industry, with small to medium-sized businesses suffering the most. 

The Government’s overly cautious travel requirements have led to the UK trailing behind its European competitors. Not only was the UK much slower than other countries to restart, with more stringent restrictions, it has also failed to capitalise on the progress of the vaccine rollout. EU citizens who have been double vaccinated have been able to travel within Europe without the need to test for months, a contrast to the expensive and onerous arrangements that have applied in the UK.

ABTA says this approach is putting the UK travel industry – and UK connectivity – at risk. Data from Airports Council International Europe suggest air travel bookings across Europe are at around 60% of pre-Covid levels, compared to 30% in the UK.5

Mark Tanzer, Chief Executive of ABTA – The Travel Association said:

“The Government’s travel requirements have choked off this summer’s travel trade – putting jobs, businesses and the UK’s connectivity at risk. While our European neighbours have been travelling freely and safely, the British were subject to expensive measures which have stood in the way of people visiting family and friends, taking that much-needed foreign holiday and making important business connections.

“The Government needs to wake up to the damage its policies are doing to the UK travel industry and the impact they will have on the wider economic recovery. It is the fares from leisure passengers that keep our planes flying and routes open – a diminished holiday industry is a diminished aviation industry with fewer routes and fewer flights.  That’s not how you achieve a global Britain. 

“The Government must use October’s strategic review to open up safe travel by putting the individual risk profiles at the heart of UK travel policy – capitalising on the vaccine rollout and maintaining a red list for managing known variants of concern. There is no logical explanation as to why people who are fully vaccinated should be taking expensive PCR tests – or any test at all – when returning from lower risk countries. This widespread use of PCR tests needs to stop. 

“The dire summer season also means the need for a package of tailored financial support – extending the furlough scheme for travel businesses and a dedicated grant fund – remains paramount. The Chancellor has dismissed the extension of furlough as being too ‘challenging’ – that’s not good enough and a way must be found. No matter how many times Government may try to claim it has supported travel businesses, there has not been a penny of tailored support for travel agents or tour operators, with many missing out on essential funding.”

1, 3 ABTA Member survey September 2021
2  Vaccinations in the UK | Coronavirus in the UK (data.gov.uk)
4 Calculated from responses to ABTA Member survey September 2021
5  Gatwick Media Centre – UK losing vaccine advantage as European aviation sector recovers twice as fast (gatwickairport.com)

More on ending the widespread use of PCR testing
In its submission to Government today, ABTA highlights that evidence gathered from returning travellers this summer overwhelmingly supports the argument to end widespread use of PCR testing. The test positivity rate across both amber and green list countries does not exceed the rate domestically within the UK, with the level of positive tests within the green list being well below those recorded domestically. Meanwhile, sequencing of the tests – used as a reason to justify the need for PCR tests – is in reality extremely limited and detection of variants across the green and amber destinations is minimal – and negligible for very high priority variants. 

It also says the World Health Organisation’s position is that travellers should not be treated as higher risk by default than the public, and there is no clear rationale for continuing to subject travellers to restrictive and costly testing based on their destination of origin rather than vaccination status. Notably, the current approach to travel is not being applied to mass events in the UK with tens of thousands of spectators, such as large sporting events or festivals, yet there does not appear to be evidence that travelling is inherently riskier than these activities.